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The top of the brass

Los Angeles Opera offers a work based on the life of Rafael Mendez, a trumpeter of effortless virtuosity and big musical personality.

October 16, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Opera regularly comes up with new opera for children. Saturday afternoon, it came up with another and much else for its world premiere of Lee Holdridge's "Concierto Para Mendez" in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Based on the life of the Mexican trumpeter Rafael Mendez -- who was first chair in the MGM Orchestra in the early '40s and went on to have a popular solo career in the '50s -- this work nicely dovetails into National Hispanic Heritage Month and L.A. Opera's Voices of Tolerance program. It just as nicely dovetails into the company's wooing of Hollywood.

Holdridge has scored films, won Emmys and been nominated for Grammys. Richard Sparks, the librettist, dashes back and forth between television and opera. Dan Guerrero, the director, puts PBS, NBC, Fox, HBO, Univision and Telemundo at the top of his credits. Conductor Richard Kaufman, who leads pops orchestras in Dallas, Costa Mesa and Florida, joined MGM in 1984.

Attached to "Concierto Para Mendez" is the description "part concert, part opera, part oratorio and part film score." That pretty well sums it up. An orchestra sits in the rear of the stage. Behind it is a film screen. In front of it is a platform for trumpet soloist Malcolm McNab. In front of him, singers enact Mendez's life. In front of them is a narrator, the mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman.

Mendez was remarkable. He has been called the greatest trumpet player of all time. He may or may not have been that, but the way he made the instrument seem to dance, his effortless virtuosity and his big musical personality did put him in a class of his own. His records are in a dated '50s pops style, but when he marvelously sails through Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto it doesn't matter how campy the arrangement.

Mendez's story is also remarkable. In 1916, at age 10, he was plucked by Pancho Villa to stir the guerrilla forces into battle during the Mexican Revolution. In his 20s, the trumpeter played in big bands in the States only to have a door slam in his face and ruin his lip. He laboriously relearned the trumpet and then made it big in Hollywood and became a devoted educator.

"Concierto Para Mendez" is meant to inspire and does so with generic grace. A Hollywood musical style pervades Holdridge's score (the overture closes in on John Williams' territory).

But the music is never less than agreeable and often memorably tuneful, although only some of those tunes came from Mendez's repertory.

Rafael's father (Daniel Montenegro), first bandleader (Jamie Offenbach) and wife (Ailyn Perez) were sympathetic. Even Pancho Villa (LeRoy Villanueva) appeared to have a big heart under his gruff exterior. I wish the boy playing the 10-year-old Rafael had been credited on the cast list; he was wonderful.

You can do a lot worse than look to Mendez as a role model for a young musician. But I am not sure that this presentation would have inspired many savvy 21st century children. The projections behind the orchestra by Daniel Foster were extremely cheap looking and painfully obvious. The amplification did no one a favor. The orchestra was placed in the absolutely worst acoustical spot. What Mendez made look easy and great fun, McNab made seem like hard work. Bringing half a dozen student trumpeters on stage for the finale, however, was a winning gesture.

Maybe this wasn't really for children. Tickets were offered free, but there were rows of empty seats in the orchestra section. Most around me were adults, and many appeared to be part of the Hollywood connection.

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