Sunday, warm and clear, was a free day for the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They arrived from LaGuardia Airport the previous afternoon and evening, fresh from last week's triumphs in New York's Carnegie Hall.
Some players and family members took a funicular ride to the top of one of the many mountains that ring the region. Others went sightseeing in the nearby colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, a retirement destination for many Americans, numerous Chicagoans included.
Many simply took time to stroll along the narrow, winding cobblestone streets of the old central city, its wrought-iron balconies glinting in the noonday sun. The aroma of fresh-baked pastry wafted in from a tiny storefront next to one of the huge churches that dominate the skyline. Cool gardens beckoned from behind ancient wooden doors.
“We're not in Chicago anymore,” assistant concertmaster David Taylor remarked over breakfast.
He and cellist Richard Hirschl were among the 50 or so players who gathered on a street corner late Sunday night to watch a local folk ensemble singing, beating drums and dancing in feathered costumes, huge headdresses and leather outfits, as onlookers cheered.
The CSO musicians may be new to Guanajuato, but artistically Riccardo Muti y la Orquesta Sinfonica de Chicago (as they are billed in the program book) loom at the head of a bounteous parade of cultural events going on here this month as part of the 40th annual Festival Internacional Cervantino.
Named after the great Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes, this movable cultural feast comprises some 110 performances ranging from classical to pop to jazz, theater, dance, street happenings and multimedia. It is one of the largest and most important events of its kind in Mexico. And it's only a part of the massive arts infusion that seizes the town the rest of the year.
The wonder is that they can find enough halls and theaters and plazas to house everything, not to mention accommodate the arts tourists who come in from all over the world to bask in the many attractions.
Monday's 9 p.m. concert by Muti and his orchestra was to have taken place at the historic Teatro Juarez, which seats only 800. This imposing structure was commissioned in 1903, which makes it roughly the same age as Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Statues of the Muses tower over the front entrance, with its neoclassical colonnade. The foyer features marble steps, dark wood beams and panels, skylights and colorful tiles. It looks more like the entrance to an old Spanish cathedral than a concert hall.
Inside the grandly old-fashioned theater, which features a European-style horseshoe design, polished wooden seats gleam below five tiers of balconies. How well the acoustics will serve Muti's purposes in Brahms and Franck, we will find out soon enough. A large wooden shell had been placed at the rear of the stage in advance of the CSO's rehearsal Monday morning. It was there to help project the sound in the dryish acoustic. Not one to take any chances in an unfamiliar concert room, Muti had his string players drawing longer-than-usual bow strokes in the Brahms Second Symphony.
We shall hear later Monday evening, when warm bodies fill the seats, how much those stratagems help.
Between the maestro's southern Italian sensibility and the warm hospitality of the locals, Muti hit it off immediately with those who run the city and its pride-and-joy festival.
“I feel at home here, very welcomed,” he told the members of the media and various dignitaries earlier in the day at a formal ceremony in city council chambers where he was given Guanajuato's highest honor — its “honorary resident award.” The key to the city, we would call it.
Speaking in Italian — the closest he could come to Spanish — Muti thanked Guanajuato's mayor, Edgar Castro Cerrillo, and various other officials for the “big honor, which I share with my orchestra.” He mentioned how much Chicago has “opened its arms” to its large Mexican community over the years. As for the local cultural life, “it's the same great cultural vitality” he observed years ago when he led the Vienna Philharmonic on tour to Mexico, he said.
The dry air, warm temperatures, openness of the citizenry to visitors and appetite for cultural diversity Muti found in Guanajuato reminded him of one of his favorite places back home in Italy, the Spoleto Festival in the region of Umbria. “I feel both are holy places,” he observed.
While in Mexico, some musicians are taking time out to give master classes at local music conservatories — events organized as part of the Citizen Musician initiative of the CSO's learning institute. Concertmaster Robert Chen and his colleague Charles Pikler conducted separate sessions Sunday afternoon at the University of Guanajuato.
Chen's session involved eight young violin students. They had been assigned repertory ranging from solo Bach to a Beethoven sonata to concertos by Bruch and Mozart. Chen offered his advice with the help of a translator.
“They all seemed very earnest, very receptive to my ideas,” he told me. “The playing level was all right; I don't think I was surprised. At the same time, they seemed really excited, because they don't get teaching experiences like this very often.”
A wave of colds appeared to have swept through the ranks of players during their Carnegie Hall residency last week. But this hasn't produced any concert dropouts, nor does it appear to have dampened the upbeat attitude overall as the CSO musicians headed into Monday's concert and their tour-concluding performance Wednesday in Mexico City.
Read John von Rhein's continuing coverage of the CSO's tour at chicagotribune.com/vonrhein