Marcelo Cesena: His Life, Spiritual Journey and Ministry of Music

     Oil wells and cattle may be the first impression one has of Houston, Texas. Some may be familiar with the city's sports teams like the Astros or Rockets or the famous BBQ joints that have made Houston the fourth largest city in the country. But, few would consider the Houston's offerings in the world of classical music with as much reverence. After all, Houston isn't Paris, Vienna or 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 a little night music.

"Wha are you doo-hing," a familiar, inimical voice asks?


"Mr. Director. How are you doo-hing? I'm in Hewstone toonight, doo-hing a concert. Can you come?

The familiar, oddly accented voice lifted my mood immediately. Marcelo Cesena (along with his musical collaborator at 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 each other 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 an opportunity 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 is still in demand as more and more people are discovering his uniqueness -- most probably due to 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 popular 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 is a two-time winner of the Young Soloists Competition of the Symphonic Orchestra of the State of So Paulo.

The real turning point came when Cesena began staging benefit performances to raise money for numerous organizations including Brazilian orphanages and Grace Odyssey -- an organization dedicated to providing daily care for people whose lives have been impacted by HIV/AIDS. The beauty of his generosity is how much fun he seems to derive from making other people happy. A favorite photo of mine shows Cesena at one of Rio's poorest favelas. His arms are outstretched - the top 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 the years, 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 study 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 understand and empathize with the suffering of another human being. His harmonies are salubrious, a rare balm in the cannon of 21st century music, magically, effortlessly supporting his melodies. Overall, his compositions are surprisingly free of artifice, giving you the impression you've heard it before, loved it before. Inspired by the often tragic narratives he hears people from the people he encounters, Cesena hopes to write music that resonates and heals -- something that can help transform tragedy. Earlier this year, he heard a news story about a 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 perfect 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 find Cesena already deeply engaged with the event's organizers and fielding calls from the promoters at his next engagement. Any apprehension I have 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 few warm up exercises as we chat, making up for lost time. He asked how my writing was coming along. Did I have a new script? When did I think I would 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 set up 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 all the time in the world to answer questions about his career, his current tour and his plans for the future. By now, he's familiar with the media drill. With dates in Austin, Phoenix and Los Angeles still to come, 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 help 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 in particular, an ongoing conversation, a selfish effort on my part to influence his repertoire. He laughs without a 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 accomplish 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 address 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 few 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 far 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 copy 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 have an idea for a script."

The evening feels full of possibilities. I feel refreshed. Moments later, I lose him in a swelling throng of well-wishers and new admirers. The next morning Cesena prepares to make the two and a half hour drive from Houston to Austin, another audience -- more gifts of healing music.

Article Source :

David Oliveras is an award winning writer, photographer and film director. He currently divides his time between in New York City and Houston.

Posted on 2013-11-07, By: *

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