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A Musical Celebration of Cinco de Mayo

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Two concerts--one classical, the other featuring mariachi music--will be held Sunday at Cal State Northridge in honor of Cinco de Mayo.

The first marks the San Fernando Valley debut of La Sinfonica del Barrio. Although the orchestra has been performing in the Los Angeles area since it was founded in 1974, “most of our concerts have been in East L.A.,” said Peter Quesada, the 65-member group’s founder and conductor. “That is where we got started. But we have musicians in the orchestra from all over the city.”

Quesada, a private music teacher, started the orchestra in response to cutbacks in public school services in the mid-1970s. “The kids were not getting the music classes they used to get,” he said. “In some parts of town the parents can afford private lessons to make up for that. But in the barrio, forget it. If the schools do not provide it, the kids just can’t get it.”

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La Sinfonica del Barrio, which held its first auditions and rehearsals at East Los Angeles College, was formed to give interested students and adults in the area a chance to hear live orchestral music. “We play the standard fare--Bach, Beethoven, Strauss and the other greats,” Quesada said, “but we also specialize in music of the New World.”

On the program for the CSUN concert are works by two Latino composers living in Los Angeles, Hector Armienta and David Reyes.

Although strongly identified with Latino music, the orchestra is made of musicians from a wide variety of cultural and racial backgrounds. “For example, for my concertmasters I’ve had two that were Chinese, an African-American and an Anglo-Saxon,” said Quesada with a laugh. “Now, for the first time, I have a Mexican.”

All of the musicians in the orchestra are paid. This concert, which is expected to cost about $8,500, has been underwritten by a grant from Columbia Pictures and funds provided by several CSUN departments.

The second group playing Sunday is hardly a stranger to CSUN. The Mariachi Aztlan was founded on the campus in 1973, when its members were students there. “It grew out of the Department of Chicano Studies, which started in 1969,” said Everto Ruiz, now a professor in the department. “We got together and started to play for classes to give demonstrations of the music, then we started to get requests from the Chicano and non-Chicano community to play for special events.”

Although the group’s members went on to different walks of life, they all stayed in the area. Rudy Vasquez, Stan Leandro and Gilbert Salazar are teachers. Ernesto Rodriguez is an engineer, Juan Esquivel is a graphic artist, David Lara is the youth director at a Catholic church and Dulio Chavez just completed his law studies.

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“We didn’t want to quit just because we graduated,” Ruiz said. “It meant a lot to us to have this musical connection with our culture. And people kept asking us to play.”

The concert by Mariachi Aztlan, which took its name from the Nahuatl Indian word for the American Southwest, kicks off CSUN’s weeklong May Music Festival. The festival will feature concerts by several university classical music and jazz groups, ending May 11 with a performance of Mozart’s Requiem sung by the Valley Master Chorale.

La Sinfonica del Barrio performs Sunday at 3 p.m. and the Mariachi Aztlan at 5 p.m. in the University Student Union of Cal State Northridge. The symphony concert is free. For information , call (818) 885-3301. Tickets for the mariachi performance range from $8 to $12. For information on Mariachi Aztlan and other CSUN May Music Festival events, call (818) 885-3093.

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