The members of the audience faced a quandary at Yardley Hall on Friday. They could refuse to accept Aida Cuevas’ frequent exhortations to join her in singing familiar Mexican songs like “Volver, Volver” in order to marvel at her extraordinary voice or they could join the high-spirited party and further obscure the star’s vocals.
Most of her 800 fans did a bit of both during the stunning two-hour concert (not including a 20-minute intermission). Cuevas, a veteran known as “the queen of ranchera music,” was accompanied by Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, an accomplished group that bills itself as "America's first all-female mariachi ensemble."
Rather than constricting Cuevas’ artistry, the traditional acoustic format liberated her stellar instrument. Cuevas is to Mexico what Aretha Franklin is to the United States: a powerful voice that encapsulates the essence of her nation’s spirit.
The ten-piece Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles extinguished any preconceived notions that mariachi is a hopelessly hackneyed form. “Querreque” was among the selections on which the group shone while Cuevas took a break. Anchored by Karla Tovar’s robust guitarron playing, the five-piece violin section, two trumpets and two additional guitars combined to evoke a full symphony.
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When the women took turns singing lead, each of their efforts seemed increasingly remarkable. Julissa Murrillo’s preposterously long held note delighted the audience. The band’s abundant talent pushed Cuevas to demonstrate the full extent of her operatic range and flair for drama.
Her eyes seemed to well with tears during tributes to Juan Gabriel, the man known as “el divo de Juarez.” Her legendary friend and duet partner died in August. Cuevas’ stunning vocal exhibition on “El Pastor” included a treacherous staircase of progressively high notes.
A man at the back of Yardley Hall was so flummoxed by Cuevas’ bravura that he shouted at length over the opening strains of “Quizás Mañana.” The gracefully imposing Cuevas gently pointed a finger in his direction as she delivered the romantic ballad, a persuasive gesture that a confident lion tamer might employ to soothe an agitated charge.
The piercing shouts of joy known as grito punctuated the performance. Dozens of impressive efforts originated from the audience, particularly when an image of the Mexican flag waved on the video screen behind the stage. Members of Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles also unleashed a few exuberant roars. Fittingly, however, the most resonant grito of the jubilant evening belonged to Cuevas.