Colorful arrangements bring a grandfather’s compositions to life
Cenobio Hernandez left Mexico at the end of the Mexican Revolution.
He came to Texas. He arrived in San Antonio with some family and the music within him.
Hernandez would write more than 100 compositions, many of them in the style of the orquestra tipica — a sort of musical hybrid in which composers took folk music of Mexico and set it to the higher style of a chamber orchestra. Cenobio died eight years before the birth of his grandson, two-time Grammy Award-winning Denton musician Cenobio “Bubba” Hernandez.
Local musicians will perform six of those songs, arranged by Denton musician and composer David J. Pierce, in a tribute to Cenobio Hernandez on Friday.
Another of Hernandez’s grandchildren, Ricky Hernandez, will play about three of the composer’s songs. The San Antonio pianist honored his grandfather with the 2002 release of Recuerdos Musica Para Piano por Cenobio Hernandez, interpreting 12 songs his grandfather wrote for piano.
“Recuerdos: A Tribute to Cenobio Hernandez” will also include performances by Bubba Hernandez, local dance company CholoRock Dance Theatre, and Denton’s Mariachi Quetzal. The Greater Denton Arts Council presents Friday’s event, which also includes an art exhibition with Latin-inspired work.
As with many projects in Denton, this one sprang from a couple of conversations. Pierce said Bubba Hernandez mentioned his grandfather’s music to him.
“He and I were kind of visiting over different things — talking over music and art and talking about a couple of projects — and he brought up his grandfather. That entire family is very well versed on the impact their grandfather has done, as well they should be,” Pierce said.
It took him a while to listen to the CD of Hernandez’s music.
“Bubba gave me the CD and it sat around for a while. Then I finally put it in and played and that was it. I fell in love with the music,” Pierce said. “Right about that time, I was working with this artist, Robert Hamilton. He wanted me to orchestrate this video short about these Mexican luchadors. That was right about the time I was digging into Hernandez’s music.”
Pierce said he started thinking about arrangements of the songs — many of which are melancholy.
“I thought it would help me grow as an artist,” he said. “I thought it might be cool to reach out to all these. The council needed a spring fundraiser, and I couldn’t help opening my big mouth. I told them about this music I’d been listening to, and how I’d been wanting to arrange it. They went for it. We had the pieces, and now we had a place to put on a concert.”
Bubba Hernandez said his grandfather has come up in a number of his friendships with other Denton musicians.
“I’ve known [Denton guitarist and teacher] Thad Bonduris for years,” Hernandez said. “It was in one of our alcohol-fueled conversations — we’d been talking for a while and the words were slurring — but Thad said, ‘My grandfather opened the first silent movie theater in Texas, the Palace.’ I was like, ‘Thad, what did you say?’”
Bonduris repeated himself and Hernandez said he got a little more sober.
“I said something along the lines of ‘Thad, we’ve known each other for how long and you’re just now telling me this?’” Hernandez said. “And then I told him, ‘Do you even know why I’m here? Do you know why I’m in this country? Your grandfather was my grandfather’s boss.’
“It’s true. My granddad played at the Palace in San Antonio because they needed someone to sight-read to play the music they sent from Hollywood.”
Bubba Hernandez said he and his siblings (and his cousins) know the story well. Cenobio wanted to get out of Mexico to escape the revolution. News from the United States reached Mexico: There was work in the U.S. for musicians who could sit at the piano in the 1920s-era movie-house orchestra pits and play the music that underscored the action on screen.
By that time, though, “talkies” were replacing silent movies and displacing the musicians who performed live as the reels turned.
Cenobio Hernandez was one such displaced musician, and he was a 66-year-old father of seven when the Depression hit. His conservatory-trained hands were lent to the strawberry and cotton fields of the Southwest.
He returned to music 11 years later, after working at a furniture store where he transcribed the music of others. From 1942 to 1948, Cenobio Hernandez wrote 42 waltzes, 32 polkas, three one-steps, a schottische and a march, two danzas and one danzon. He also wrote two concertos for cello and piano.
Pierce put together a 15-piece orchestra to interpret six of the composer’s songs, which include “Rosario,” “Hortencia,” “Decepciones Del Alma” and “Recuerdos.” It’s the kind of orchestra Pierce has used for his original Halloween musical, Cirque du Horror.
“The traditional set up for tipica music has got horns, reeds, violins, the bajo sexto, which is the Mexican 12-string guitar. It’s a very cool, eclectic group,” Pierce said. “I’ve tried to recreate that to a certain extent, but still put my twist on it.”
Pierce said he tends to write for musicians he knows. He arranged “Rosario” around the talents of University of North Texas violinist and doctoral student Veronika Vassileva. For “Decepciones Del Alma,” he thought of French horn player Brian Brown.
“When I heard that song, I immediately went, ‘Wow, I can see this being a way to feature him in a big way,’” Pierce said.
He treated “No Me Abandones” as a danza, and his arrangement of “Hortencia” features the cello.
“A lot of the music is so melancholy and so chill,” Pierce said. “There have been a lot of bands I’ve heard in the past who have used a couple of soprano clarinets with a bass clarinet and it’s so blue-sounding, you know? And then that led to some music where I use two trumpets, which really brings out the mariachi sound.”
Recuerdos’ 12 songs betray both Cenobio Hernandez’s light touch and his connection to Mexico. The music does have its moments of clear, Mexican folk styling. But the composer respects the rhythms he builds a song around.
Bubba Hernandez played with local Grammy-winning polka band Brave Combo for years. The band recorded “Recuerdos” on its 1993 album No No No Cha Cha Cha, performing it as a wry riff on lounge music before breaking out into a cha-cha full of attitude.
An Olympic skating coach fell hard for the song and used the arrangement for the 1994 Olympic routine by ice dancers Jerod Swallow and Elizabeth Punsalan.
“It’s a weird position to be in, to be asked permission to have it used,” Bubba Hernandez said. “David asked me if he could use it and I’m like, ‘Yeah, knock yourself out!’
“I don’t want to tell Pierce too much, because I want him to make of it what he makes of it,” he said. “The respect paid to the charts as they were working on it was something. I’m supposed to be this consultant, and I’m there at rehearsals, hanging around, and I’m so ridiculously sheepish about it.”
Hernandez said hearing the interpretations of his grandfather’s songs has been intense.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m in a coloring book.’ I always hear this in black and white because the pictures are in black and white. My memories of my grandfather are black and white because of those pictures. You know, I never met him,” he said.
“Listening to what Pierce has done has been like watching The Wizard of Oz, and the door opens and there you are over the rainbow.”
Recuerdos: A Tribute to Cenobio Hernandez
What: Greater Denton Arts Council presents a night of the arts honoring the Mexican-American composer. A Mexican buffet dinner will be followed by music and dancing.
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Festival Hall at the Center for the Visual Arts, 400 E. Hickory St.
Details: Advance tickets purchased by today cost $30; tickets purchased at the door cost $35. For advance tickets, visit www.dentonarts.com .