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Updating a musical heritage for modern times

BY CAROLINE BERG | OCTOBER 01, 2009 7:20 AM

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Alejandro Escuer perceives the musical world to be in an imbalance. As founder of the Mexican quintet ONIX Ensamble, he has spent the better part of 15 years promoting and expanding the scope of Mexican and Latin American contemporary classical music.

“They’re among the very top performers in the world,” said David Vayo, a composer and professor of music at Illinois Wesleyan University.

The group had been commissioned by Vayo to do a Midwest tour, and the UI Center for New Music was able to snag the esteemed group of performers. ONIX will present an eclectic repertoire, including one U.S. and two world première pieces, at 7 p.m. today in the University Capitol Centre Recital Hall. Admission is free.

“We try to make compelling performances with music that hasn’t been heard much before,” Escuer said. “It’s really fresh music.”

What is most important to him, however, is sharing Mexico’s and Latin America’s distinctive musical heritage while collaborating internationally to create cross-cultural, multidisciplinary projects that incorporate contemporary resources and technologies.

“[The group] seems really adventurous,” Vayo said, particularly Escuer, whom he perceives to be the group’s artistic director. “Alejandro exudes a lot of positive energy with his work.”

Vayo is among the composers included on the ONIX Midwest tour’s play list. When Escuer introduced Vayo to a selection of innovative new flutes Escuer had brought from the Netherlands, Vayo was immediately inspired to write a new piece for the quintet to play.

“I fell in love with the sound,” Vayo said of the low, resounding notes that the plastic PVC pipes played. “I said, ‘Geez, can I write something for these instruments?’ ”

The result of this inspiration is a world première piece, “Enlightenment,” with Escuer playing five different flutes, and the other four members of ONIX accompanying him on clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.

“All the pieces we have to present have different styles,” Escuer said. “Some are more folk-influenced, some are more avant-garde, some are more postmodern, and we also do some fusion.”

Vayo said that ONIX is constantly reaching out to promote talented modern composers. In fact, the ensemble’s creative vision has inspired many composers around the globe to dedicate their work for the group to perform.

“They’ve got excellent taste … Their music really means something,” Vayo said. “They don’t play anything cruddy… and they don’t feel obligated to play a [Mexican] composer’s music just to be patriotic.”

The Wesleyan professor cited Mexican composer Armando Luna as a relevant example of ONIX’s countless collaborations. Vayo described Luna’s work as fantastical quicksilver constantly bubbling, shifting around and full of wit. ONIX will perform one of Luna’s pieces at Iowa as a U.S. premiere.

Vayo believes ONIX’s choices of repertoire reflects both Mexican musical heritage and also serves as a vanguard for international contemporary music.

“We are very intensive workers,” Escuer said of the quintet. “It’s hard because it’s like keeping a family together. It’s just like … a marriage, but we’re a marriage of five.”

The five ONIX members’ lives are devoted to music. Besides accommodating rigorous schedules of international commitments and projects, all the members are also music professors at the National University of Mexico in Mexico City.

“I try to emphasize the creative side of performing and not just have my students follow a score,” Escuer said. The artist himself thrives on thinking outside the mainstream of any given musical genre or tradition.

As for cultural boundaries, Escuer is administering his music to unite America as a continent.

“I really believe in breaking these frontiers,” he said.


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