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At Chamber Music Fest, Chambers Are Optional

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By Cindy Loose
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 19, 2009

One of the world's finest colonial cities nestles high in the Sierra Madre Mountains, its cobblestone streets leading to a main square filled with flowers and shadowed by the spires of a Gothic church built in 1683.

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Around the edges of the square, patrons of open-air restaurants linger on patios sheltered by bright red umbrellas. The restaurant smells mingle with those from a nearby cooking school, where chefs trained around the world share their skills amid displays of handmade pottery from such master artisans as Gorky Gonzalez and Jesus Santos.

It is a special place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And San Miguel de Allende's magic is heightened for two weeks every August by the sounds of world-renowned musicians. They perform in ancient churches with bright frescoes, a concert hall, a former monastery and other historic buildings.

During San Miguel's Chamber Music Festival, the music also spills into the streets, as artists who perform most of the year in such venues as New York's Carnegie Hall and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires bring their music to the masses. And every day, all over the city, you can catch free performances by Mexico's best young musicians, advanced students who compete for spots in master classes given by the visiting professionals.

Musicians performing in this year's 31st annual festival, from Aug. 5 to 16, will include the Jupiter String Quartet, fresh from an international tour; the Borromeo String Quartet, veterans of Italy's Spoleto Festival who average 100 concerts a year worldwide; and pianist Natasha Tarasova, who describes her music as a combination of blues, funk, classical and pop.

Tarasova, to me, is a symbol of the unpretentious nature of the San Miguel festival. Not a single one of the concerts I attended last year was accompanied by that stifled, haughty feel you sometimes get at classical performances. This event is more about the energy and beauty of music -- all music. A mixture of styles is not frowned upon.

Last year's concert at Rancho La Loma, a gorgeous property where equestrians from Mexico's championship team practice, was typical of the atmosphere that prevails at the festival. In an upscale carriage house lined with wine casks, a local mariachi band played during a gourmet lunch. When it was time for the main performers to take the stage, the leader of the Synergy Brass Quintet motioned for the mariachis to stay, and the quintet joined them for a rousing Mexican tune. Then the quintet led off with Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," segueing into some New Orleans blues.

"This festival is about bringing fusion in music and enriching Mexico with the music of the world," Synergy Brass Quintet leader Bobby Thorp said when I spoke to him afterward. Thorp told me it pains him that so many Mexican street musicians play every day yet have never stepped foot inside a concert hall.

There were carriage rides around the estate before the concert, and afterward we enjoyed a demonstration of dressage by a Mexican Olympic hopeful. Thorp, meanwhile, was chatting with the mariachis and arranging for them to attend that evening's concert in the city's opera house.

It's not too late to head off to this year's festival. Concert tickets, accommodations and flights remain plentiful, according to festival organizers, due in part to the economy and in part to the swine flu scare.

Other potential visitors may fear the heat of a Mexican August, but that too is a misperception. San Miguel sits 6,000 feet above sea level. Days tend to be pleasantly warm, and on an August evening you may even need a sweater.

Chances are that while you're here, another festival of a local variety will be taking place. Our first night in San Miguel, I dove from the bed to the floor when I heard what I thought were gunshots. They turned out to be fireworks marking the feast day of one of the many saints whose special days Mexicans routinely celebrate with pyrotechnics and street parties.

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