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A mariachi's journey is the ballad of a lifetime

Arturo Marquez and his wife, Aurora, visit Disney Hall to hear the L.A. Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel perform a piece by their son that echoes back to their early days.

October 10, 2010|Steve Lopez

More than six decades ago, in the colonial Mexican town of Alamos, Arturo Marquez came upon a woman so striking he felt a flutter under his lapel. He caught her eye, she waved to him, and Marquez set out to win her heart.

Marquez, a carpenter by day, was a mariachi by night, the son and grandson of musicians. With a trio of friends, he went to the home of the beautiful Aurora Navarro in Alamos, Sonora, and serenaded her. Marquez had two instruments, his violin and his voice, and his music was too much for Aurora to resist. When he asked for her hand in marriage a few years into the Sunday serenades, she said yes, and the dance began.

Sixty years and nine children later, the Marquezes were still holding hands Thursday night, when Mr. Marquez, who moved his family to the U.S. in the 1960s, took his wife on a date. They went to Disney Hall to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.

It's safe to say no one in the sellout crowd was happier or prouder to be there than Arturo and Aurora Marquez. For his finale, Dudamel, the passionate maestro, would conduct a piece very dear to them, for it was composed by the Marquezes' first-born son, Arturo Jr.

Mr. Marquez, who has lost much of his vision, was dapper in a coat and tie. Mrs. Marquez, who walks with a cane, was understated radiance. They live in the Imperial Valley and this was their first trip to Disney Hall, and they walked the red carpet as they arrived for the season's opening concert. Mr. Marquez said he'd never dreamed of a night like this during all his years as a struggling musician — a night of elegance in a world-class music hall with his son's name on the program.

Mr. Marquez was born in the U.S. and went to Mexico when the Great Depression hit. His parents found work there, and he didn't return to live in California until the 1960s. On moving back, he found work as a cabinetmaker and a mariachi at Casa Escobar in Santa Monica, and sent for the family when he'd saved enough money.

"For 19 years," he told me, "I worked seven days a week."

But his wife had harder work and longer hours, caring for and inspiring the couple's nine children. Mrs. Marquez had not gone past sixth grade and her husband stopped at second grade, but seven of their children went to college and all nine are working professionals. The brood includes two engineers, two attorneys, a historian and teacher. And, of course, the composer, a Fulbright scholar whose music is celebrated in Latin America and around the world.

I asked Mrs. Marquez if she might be willing to share some child-rearing secrets.

"Give them lots of love," she said as sons George, an attorney, and Antonio, an engineer, looked on.

It was George who contacted me last week, saying he had just discovered his brother's piece was on the program. His parents had seen Dudamel conduct "Danzon No. 2" on television, but never live. Unfortunately it was too late to get tickets, and George wondered if I had any ideas. I passed his note along to Disney Hall, and the L.A. Phil came through.

"It's going to be one of the greatest things they can have in their life at this time," the composer, Arturo Jr., told me by phone last week from Mexico, where he settled after studying music at CalArts and in France as a young man. His parents have been in failing health, said the son, and attending the concert would lift their spirits.

The composer told me the piece Dudamel would perform, "Danzon No. 2," has its roots, in part, in the music of the Sonoran town where his father serenaded his mother, and in the Cuban dance music that made its way to Veracruz. As a boy, Arturo Jr. learned violin from his father and piano from the teacher whose music wafted into the streets of colonial Alamos.

"It's precious," the senior Marquez told me of his son's composition, and its position on the program was no surprise to him.

"Save the best for last," he said.

As the second half of the concert began, both the Venezuelan Dudamel and Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez turned opening night into a soaring Latin fiesta, and with the Spanish ballad "Jurame," the Marquezes time-traveled back to Sonora.

"My father serenaded my mother with that song," said George.

"Swear to me," goes the lyric, "that even though much time passes, I'll never forget the moment that I met you."

When Dudamel came to the last number, Arturo Marquez and his date stared straight ahead expectantly. The music began with clarinet and oboe answering each other's calls, like young lovers, and wooden claves kept time with a sound that suggested a carpenter's hammer. Then came the strings, the romance building to a gallop.

Mr. Marquez moved forward ever so gradually as the 10-minute composition turned tender, then torrid and back again. Dudamel's baton danced, his hair levitated, the room burned with energy and passion.

The old mariachi looked like he might leap to his feet before "Danzon No. 2" was done and yell, "My son wrote this! My son!"

The audience roared when it ended; Arturo and Aurora Marquez swelled.

"Beautiful," said Mr. Marquez, calling it the best rendition ever. "Beautiful."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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