UHD’s José Vazquez Shares Expertise With Candlelight Concerts
By Laura Wagner
The UHD campus community knows José Vazquez as the director of Mariachi Los Caimanes, UHD’s award-winning mariachi band (and sometimes performer—he plays a variety of instruments). Earlier this month, Vazquez’ musical expertise brought him a unique opportunity: to serve as host and consultant for a Candlelight Concerts mariachi-influenced series, “Día De Los Muertos: Celebrating the Day of the Dead,” in Los Angeles and Chicago.
“They needed someone with both classical and mariachi music expertise to assist the orchestra with questions related to the mariachi style,” Vazquez explained. “And they were looking for someone who was bilingual in English/Spanish to serve as emcee of the concerts. I checked both those boxes, so I got the pleasure of working with world-class, professional musicians from renowned orchestras all over the country, including Shana Bey (violin), Clayton Penrose-Whitmore (violin), J.D. Karpicke (violin), Hailey Walterman (viola), Ismael Guerrero (cello), and Lindsey Sharpe (cello).”
Candlelight Concerts are a recent innovation in live music performance—audiences are kept small and venues are dramatic, made more so by the hundreds of flameless candles that are placed around the performers. The concerts, which are held around the globe, each have a theme, ranging from classical to pop to movie soundtracks to jazz to mariachi.
Candlelight’s “Día De Los Muertos: Celebrating the Day of the Dead” performance included “Danse Macabre” by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns and two classical pieces by Mexican composers, “Estrellita” by Manuel Ponce and “Huapango” by José Pablo Moncayo. “We opted for historical relevance with our musical selections to stay true to the culture as much as possible,” said Vazquez.
The experience was amazing, but it was no vacation. “People see the final product and appreciate the performance, but they don’t realize the incredible amount of effort and work going on behind the scenes to make it happen,” said Vazquez. “Rehearsals started each morning at 10:45 a.m. at the rehearsal studios. We took a two-hour break at 2:30 p.m., which gave us just enough time in Los Angeles traffic to get to the venues for soundchecks at 4:30 p.m. Those lasted about an hour, then performances were at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. We were too afraid of being caught in a traffic jam between the studios and venues to take real breaks, so we just focused on getting where we needed to be and staying there. They were long days!”
Vazquez’ days were made longer by early morning trips to instrument stores in Los Angeles. “I had to get up at 7 a.m. and get through traffic to make it to the stores by 9 a.m., when they opened. That gave me about an hour before I had to get to rehearsals,” he said.
Why the effort to visit these stores in particular? Vazquez explained that it’s very difficult to find mariachi instrument makers in the U.S., as most reputable companies that make mariachi instruments choose to operate their factories in Mexico. “I was fortunate to visit Candelas Guitars, where I met Tomás Delgado, a famous luthier (guitar maker) in East Los Angeles whose father and grandfather launched a luthier business in 1928.” Delgado, a local legend, still runs it.
“I purchased a vihuela (a guitar-like, five-stringed instrument) to bring home to UHD for our students to use,” Vazquez said. “Being able to talk to Tomás Delgado will be a game changer for Mariachi Los Caimanes—I hope to establish a pipeline for instruments for our group.”
Another notable experience for Vazquez were rehearsals at the landmark Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by architect Frank Gehry and home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “It’s one of the best orchestras globally, with world-class facilities,” said Vazquez. “It felt like a dream walking into the space and being shown to the artists’ entrance!”
The tour also reminded Vazquez how much he missed performing. A multi-instrumentalist, he began studying piano at the age of six. He prefers performing as a pianist and singer. “I cut back on my music performances after the pandemic,” he said. “This trip brought back memories of how much I love it. I’ve had Mariachi Los Caimanes as my sole focus since 2020, but it may be time to start performing again.”
Vazquez also has plans to start writing grant proposals to get UHD Mariachi more funding through external partnerships. “Through the Candlelight performances, I made connections with folks who work for non-profits that support the arts,” he said.
As the highest-rated concert of the Candlelight series produced by FeverUp.com in the U.S., it’s likely Vazquez will be asked back next year.
“It was such an honor to represent UHD, as we don’t even have a music school. I hope that being good enough to work with accomplished professionals like the Candlelight performers means that I can one day perhaps become a professor of practice or even a tenured professor of music at UHD,” he said. “Music is my passion, and I believe that providing access to music education at all levels (K-12, university, community education) will make the world a better place.”