Because I love music, a lot of musicians end up in my novels. In MARIACHI MURDER, Andy Veracruz is a band leader in Southern California… until he really gets into trouble!

Posts tagged ‘mariachi murder’

Rossini and Verdi Rock the Opera Festival in Oaxaca, Mexico

Last weekend I had the immense pleasure of playing for the opera festival in Oaxaca, Mexico. It came about because orchestra conductor Linus Lerner, Maribel Sánchez, and their cohorts had the grand idea to bring young singers to Oaxaca. Linus and Maribel collected soloists, chorus members, orchestra members, and even dancers to put on a supreme show. Sponsors from SASO helped fund the gala event.

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The soloists were from all over Mexico. They included Jorge Jiménez from Guadalajara singing Ponchielli’s “Cielo y mar” and Gabriel Navarro from Mexico City singing Wagner’s “Abendstern.” We performed 32 pieces altogether, starting with an overture from “La forza del destino.”


We had a wonderful combination of pieces written by composers ranging from Vivaldi to Verdi. Hits included Donizetti’s “Quel guardo il cavaliere” and the Anvil song (Gypsy song) from Il Trovatore. The singers performed in Italian, French, and German. Many of the pieces were solos. Others were duets. In the case of “Si ritrovarla io giuro” the soloist claimed he would find Cinderella while his attendants swore to help him!


We performed our first concert in the Teatro Macedonio Alcalá. The event was free, but seating was limited. When we arrived, there was a line that stretched all the way around the block! We performed for an exceedingly attentive audience who didn’t seem to mind that we had such a long program! Instead they wanted more. After we played the “Brindisi” from La Traviata, they wouldn’t let us go home! We had to perform it again.


We had a chance to perform the concert on Sunday as well, this time at Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves. (The priests kindly let us use their church at the last minute.) This was a smaller venue, so it was more intimate. Because the church had wonderful acoustics, opera music went sailing through the streets.


The festival came after a week of long rehearsals for the musicians from the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra from Tucson combined with local musicians. Saturday we had a six-hour rehearsal! But our efforts were well rewarded. We’re already happy about the prospects of coming back again next year.


Naturally, the parties afterwards were pretty good too!


Photos compliments of Jorge Jimenez and Maribel Sanchez

D.R. Ransdell is a Tucson-based novelist. To read about her series featuring a totally different kind of musician, mariachi violinist Andy Veracruz, please see

Andy’s first adventure is titled MARIACHI MURDER.


Savoring the Unexpected with Michael Cavanaugh

I’m busy. I have a day job, a night job (writing), and various music jobs. I have a house and cats to take care of, etc., etc. Thus there are many times when I buy tickets for something way in advance. Instead of savoring the experience by anticipating it, I usually show up at the theatre five minutes before the production is supposed to start. Usually by that time I’ve forgotten the name of the play I’m seeing or the name of any performers who are guest artists.

Thus last January when Cookie and I headed out for the evening, I couldn’t tell her anything about the tickets we had for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. “Why did we want to come to this concert?” she asked a couple of times. “I don’t remember,” I told her. “It’s some guy. I think he sings Billy Joel songs.”

That was all I remembered. We had an enjoyable dinner together, but since I had no information, we didn’t discuss the concert we were about to see.

The TSO has a series of concerts they do with pop artists. This makes for a pleasant combination of pop culture and classically trained musicians. The year before I’d gone to a performance that included dancers from Dancing with the Stars, for example. The orchestra has been proactive in offering audiences the best of both worlds. Yet most of the groups they’d performed with were groups I had never heard of. I hadn’t heard of the evening’s singer; I’d simply focused on the words in the promo that included “Billy Joel.”

I don’t know a lot about American music. I grew up listening to Beethoven and Mahler, but in college I discovered Billy Joel when a friend dragged me to a concert and I was wowed by the piano solos in “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” I’d been a fan ever since. Even though my record collection only included some twenty titles, I faithfully purchased each new Billy Joel album. I’d listened to The Stranger and 52nd Street so many times that after one song ended, I already knew which song would come next.

Imagine my delight, then, when TSO started in with a medley of Billy Joel songs. When the invited artist popped onto the stage, he sat down and started hammering away at the piano Billy Joel style. The performer was mesmerizing. He was thrilling. He was Michael Cavanaugh.


Within moments he’d captivated the whole audience. By the second song, I was tapping my feet. By the second half I was wishing the concert would never, ever end.

The question is this: did I enjoy the performance more because I hadn’t anticipated it? Because I didn’t realize I’d seen Cavanaugh perform Movin’ Out on Broadway a few years earlier until he started explaining about some of his musical experiences?


My friends have accused me of being too busy. They are undoubtedly right. But there are a series of things I’m going to keep right on doing: buying tickets ahead of time to performances I think I might like, showing up for them without knowing much if anything about them, and preparing to be delighted by something unexpected and wonderful.

That’s what life is all about, isn’t it?

To read about my musical murder mysteries (Mariachi Murder, Island Casualty), please see


Why I Love Mariachi #2 Classical Differences

I love mariachi music because it’s immediate. When you’re playing for an audience, you’re usually right there next to them. Once in a while you might be on stage, but at any rate, you’re still close by. That makes the music more vibrant, more exciting, more alive. As a performer it’s wonderful because you constantly make eye contact with your audience either to let them know you empathize or that you’re joking or that you’re simply checking in to make their experience the best one possible.

This is in complete contrast to classical music. Last month I had a chance to hear the Tucson Symphony Orchestra concert. Steven Moeckel played John Corigliano’s concerto “The Red Violin,” and because he’s Steven Moeckel, he played it really, really well.


I could see him perfectly because I was sitting in the third row. I couldn’t see the oboes or the trumpets, but I didn’t care. As a violin player, I’m biased. During an orchestra concert, I want to keep my eyes on the violins.

I watched in awe as Steven played harmonics and double stops. He played sustained notes with graceful vibrato and crunched through passages played for effect. Because I happened to be sitting close to him, I could see his expressions and feel his triumph as he crashed through difficult passages that were high and fast and loud.

But as he performed, most of the audience was completely removed from him. (He and the conductor did give a half-hour talk before the performance, however.) The regular concert-goer wouldn’t have left the theatre with any sense of Steven the man behind the violin.

This is a shame. The reason I wanted to hear this concert was not merely because I knew the violin playing would be top-notch or that the symphony members would do a wonderful job with Mahler #5. I wanted to hear Steven in concert because a few years ago when I started back up with the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, Steven performed with us. I got to meet him and talk to him in person. And that’s how I found out he’s a tremendously nice guy. Never mind that he’s played concerts all over Europe, never mind that he’s been concertmaster of both TSO and the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. He’s there for all of us.
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As I heard him perform tonight, I was well aware of that. I felt bad for the audience members who only knew about him through the biography in the program and hearing the notes he played on stage. He’s much more than that, but in classical music, the audience is almost always a distant concept. They’re specks of dust on the horizon or drops of rain in a storm. They’re far away.

What I’d really like to see is Steven Moeckel playing up close and personal in a mariachi band. Now that would be worth seeing every night of the week.

For more on mariachi and my new novel MARIACHI MURDER, please visit

Why I Love Mariachi: Brass versus Strings


There isn’t one reason that I love mariachi. It would take a book to explain my feelings about this musical form (I’m working on it!) But I can give a short musical answer, which is good enough to start with. I love the crazy dialogue between the violin and the trumpet.

In most mariachi music, the melody lines travel among the violins, the trumpets, and the voice. Occasionally a rhythm instrument, particularly a harp, for more formal groups, gets a solo line. And naturally the voice gets most of the melody lines. But honestly, a dialogue between violins and trumpets? And I thought it was difficult to compare apples and oranges. But a brass instrument with a huge sound that can blow your ears out versus a stringed instrument that has strong but limited sound?

Let’s take things to a practical level. Lately most mariachi groups have had to downsize. This is bad since most of the music is written for three-part violin harmony and two-part trumpet harmony. (Highly professional groups will double the violin players to six to ensure better intonation and bigger sound.) Given that the rhythm consists of a guitarrón (like a string bass) and a vihuela at a minimum, a strong professional group should have at least ten players, and that’s if the group dispenses with a guitar and a harp.

Most of the gigs I’ve played over the last years have consisted of four or five players at the most. That means that most of the time, I’m a sole violin player fighting to get my line heard over the trumpet. Crazy, right? On the other hand, this arrangement gives me the chance to really focus on our crazy dialogue.

I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the first thing the dialogue reminds me of is a couple, one that has a lot to fight about. No matter which instrument starts a line, the other instrument often answers it. Lots of songs have an effect. “You played it first,” the trumpet might be suggesting, “but I played it louder.” This statement is hard to contest. I simply cannot compete with brass no matter how much pressure I put on the bow. (Yes, I go through bows fairly often, and no, in mariachi playing, violin players don’t spend much time going between “pp” and “ff.” Most of the time, I’m trying to play “fff” in self-defense.)

There are other passages where the two instruments play in harmony to one another, as if the instruments suddenly decided to like each other after all. These harmonies are often in soothing sixths, less often in thirds. Usually the violin line is on top, where the instrument can sing out a little more. These harmonies are lush and exciting.

But they don’t last. Soon enough the instruments are back to quarreling with one another, both trying for one-upmusicianship. Try as I might, I wouldn’t say I’m able to win any of the fights. The trumpet blows past me every time, and no matter how many times I tell J. to use his mute, he rarely listens. On the other hand, it might not be his fault. After years of practicing, his poor ears probably aren’t what they used to be!

In the meantime, we continue our ritual of fighting with one another, going along with one another, echoing one another, and then fighting again. But no matter how many songs we play, our intricate dialogue always sounds fresh and surprising. Each song is a new adventure in communication, one which I love sharing with every audience members.


To see how I worked this into a mystery, check out MARIACHI MURDER.