Oil wells and cattle may be the primary impression one has of Houston, Texas. Some may be aware of the city’s sports teams just like the Astros or Rockets or the famous BBQ joints that have made Houston the fourth largest city within the country. But, few would consider the Houston’s offerings on this planet of classical music with as much reverence. In spite of everything, Houston isn’t Paris, Vienna and even New York or Nashville — cities steeped in rich, varying musica l traditions and history. Nonetheless, on a potentially rainy night in late September, an unexpected call from a friend disrupts the monotony of 90+ degree weather with the promise of slightly night music.
“Wha are you doo-hing,” a well-recognized, inimical voice asks?
“Mr. Director. How are you doo-hing? I am in Hewstone toonight, doo-hing a concert. Are you able to come?
The familiar, oddly accented voice lifted my mood immediately. Marcelo Cesena (along along with his musical collaborator on the time) scored my first feature film, Watercolors years earlier in Los Angeles. That working relationship quickly blossomed into a profound friendship from the seeds of mutual respect and admiration. I welcomed the spontaneity and the opportunity to catch up. We hadn’t seen one another in over three years and both felt the urge to open the floodgates — to share the stories and revelations of our individual creative journeys. And, it was a possibility to capture a portrait, something we talked about for a long while. He hurriedly gave me the address of the concert hall before we were interrupted by another call. It was his agent. More dates. More cities. More details he needed help keeping up with. Apparently, some things hadn’t changed. Marcelo remains to be in demand as increasingly persons are discovering his uniqueness — likely resulting from influence and reach of social media.
Cesena is an accomplished musician whose flawless technique and emotionally charged interpretations of works by Bach, Chopin and other masters as well as his lively tributes to the favored folk music of his homeland have earned him a growing reputation including his second International Brazilian Press Award (Best Brazilian Musician Living in the US) this year. His earlier win came in 2009.
Born in So Paulo to a Brazilian mother and an Italian father, Cesena didn’t begin his musical training until the age of 12 – an old man in world of would-be piano virtuosos who typically start playing while in diapers. Motivated by a desire to usurp a local brat who dazzled his mother one afternoon with a mediocre Beethoven sonata, Marcelo threw himself into his musical studies wholeheartedly, beginning with the Conservatorio Musical de Santana, in So Paolo. His intense dedication and precision earned him the praise of his peers and substantial recognition early on. He’s a two-time winner of the Young Soloists Competition of the Symphonic Orchestra of the State of So Paulo.
The true turning point came when Cesena began staging benefit performances to boost money for numerous organizations including Brazilian orphanages and grace Odyssey — a company dedicated to providing daily care for people whose lives have been impacted by HIV/AIDS. The fantastic thing about his generosity is how much fun he seems to derive from making other people happy. A favourite photo of mine shows Cesena at one in all Rio’s poorest favelas. His arms are outstretched – the highest of his head is poking out from a sea of little neatly shaved, eight year old, brown heads.
“I when to geeve one hug – day geeve me back ten,” he says. He uses the photo as his Facebook profile image.
Over time, Cesena has played everything from retirement homes, children’s hospitals, street fairs and Eastern European concert halls with the same inexhaustible munificence.
A Regents scholarship brought him to the University of Arizona where he completed a Master’s degree in Piano Performance. Shortly thereafter he relocated to Los Angeles to review film scoring at the Film, Television, and Digital Entertainment Media Program at UCLA. It wasn’t long before he had representation and multiple offers to score different types of projects. I suppose this is where I came in.
Cesena is genuinely enchanted by people and demonstrates an inexhaustible ability to listen, to know and empathize with the suffering of another human being. His harmonies are salubrious, a rare balm within the cannon of 21st century music, magically, effortlessly supporting his melodies. Overall, his compositions are surprisingly freed from artifice, providing you with the impression you’ve got heard it before, loved it before. Inspired by the often tragic narratives he hears people from the people he encounters, Cesena hopes to put in writing music that resonates and heals — something that might help transform tragedy. Earlier this year, he heard a news story a couple of thirteen year old girl who was struck by a car and killed by a man who was attempting suicide. Ironically, the driver survived. In a furious storm of empathy and creativity, he spent a sleepless night composing “Emily,” a nostalgic and lingering track on his new CD.
The trendy, park-filled, museum district of Houston, is home to the University of St. Thomas, Houston’s only Catholic university, founded in 1947 – the proper venue to host Cesena’s music and spiritual philosophy. I arrive at Cullen Hall, a modern auditorium with stadium-style seating hours before the show to search out Cesena already deeply engaged with the event’s organizers and fielding calls from the promoters at his next engagement. Any apprehension I’ve felt was gone immediately. He hadn’t changed in three years ago.
The connection he makes with the Steinway is evident, tactile bordering on amorous. He runs through a number of warm up exercises as we chat, making up for lost time. He asked how my writing was coming along. Did I have a brand new script? When did I think I might have one? Could he read it? The success of our last collaboration was something we were both anxious to repeat. I hold my head down and shuffle my feet in mock humiliation. Cesena smiles patiently at me, his only expectation – that I follow my muse.
Moments later, a news crew arrives. Two olive skinned young men arrange video lights, in preparation for a taped interview for a Brazilian television station. Cesena greets them like old friends in Portuguese as if he had on a regular basis on the planet to answer questions on his career, his current tour and his plans for the longer term. By now, he’s conversant in the media drill. With dates in Austin, Phoenix and Los Angeles still to come back, he says he’s energetic and enthusiastic about his American audiences, the release of his new CD, and the opportunities and challenges still ahead on the musical/spiritual journey he calls his mission.
After the interview he walks me back to the stage and enlists my assist in wheeling the piano into position for the performance, (now less than an hour away) as he carefully considers every seat’s line of vision. I pick up on a recurring thread, and ask him about other composers and his thoughts on Brahms particularly, an ongoing conversation, a selfish effort on my part to influence his repertoire. He laughs with no trace of cruelty at my musical ignorance then holds up his hands in self- ridicule.
“My hens are too smoll!”
Indeed his hands are small for a concert pianist. What he manages to perform despite the limitation makes his virtuosity more remarkable.
Midway through the show, something happens in the room. Cesena leans steps to the foot of the stage to handle a young boy who, up until then sat politely, if unenthused.
“Dooh you like to go to dah moo-vees?” he asks?
The boy nod. Cesena skips back to the piano. He glides over the keys, stirring a magical, sonic cauldron, summoning the familiar opening of John William’s “Theme from Harry Potter”. A moment of recognition paralyzes the audience. The hall comes alive! I can feel the temperature drop a couple of degrees. The young boy bounces in his seat in a contained hysteria. Next to him, his father, the Brazilian consul sits mouth agape in astonishment. Cesena’s ability to captivate is universal yet his heart has never strays too removed from his native roots. Familiar Brazilian favorites like “Tico-Tico no Fuba” always win an easy round of applause.
The performance ends. The audience responds with a thunderous standing ovation. He leaves me with a duplicate of “Mosaico”, the new CD, the way a doctor writes a patient a prescription.
“When are you ko mean to vee sit me in El Aye?”
“Soon,” I respond vaguely. “I’ve an idea for a script.”
The evening feels stuffed with possibilities. I feel refreshed. Moments later, I lose him in a swelling throng of well-wishers and new admirers. The following morning Cesena prepares to make the 2 and a half hour drive from Houston to Austin, another audience — more gifts of healing music.