The musical journey of Juan Ramírez began in Mexico. He arrived in Atlanta in 1974 to join the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as a violinist, and in the years since his reputation as a champion of the city’s Hispanic community and its cultural heritage has grown to large proportions. A versatile musician, he also plays guitar and marimba, is a conductor of several local orchestras and is an active composer.
Ramírez’ latest composition, a string trio called “Targetas Latinas (Latin American Post Cards),” will premiere this Sunday at 3 p.m. in a performance by violinist Olga Shpitko, violist Yang-Yoon Kim and cellist Jennifer Humphreys. The concert is part of the “Music on the Hill” series, held regularly in the chapel of Northside Drive Baptist Church. Beethoven’s String Trio No. 5 in C minor (Opus 9, No. 3) and Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Serenade in C major for String Trio are also on the program.
“Targetas Latinas” was originally commissioned for the 2011 season by the Leaf Peepers Chamber Series in Chatham, N.Y. The music director there, violinist Sanford Allen, is a friend of Ramírez’s.
“Two years ago I started writing some sketches,” Ramírez says. “A few months later I heard from Sanford that their board of directors had surprised him for [his 15th anniversary as music director] with a new commissioned trio composed by Tania Leon. Sanford asked me if I can wait to finish the trio for 2012.”
In the meantime, Ramírez had mentioned the work-in-progress to fellow Atlanta Symphony violinist Shpitko, who asked whether her own trio could play it at one of their concerts in Atlanta. “I said yes. So I finished the first movement and then the second movement.”
“All three of us have a long history of collaborating with Juan on our own,” Shpitko says of her trio. “Besides playing with Juan in the ASO, we all were involved in a number of chamber projects featuring his pieces.”
Ramírez worked things out with his friend in New York to add two more movements to the trio and extend it to almost 20 minutes for the full premiere later this year with the Leaf Peepers series.
Like much of Ramírez’ music, the two movements being performed Sunday — “Danzas (Dances)” and “Canción de Cuna (Song of Cradle)” — reflect his Hispanic heritage. But, “although deeply rooted in the everyday music of Juan’s childhood, [‘Targetas Latinas’] is still unmistakably modern, with lots of brain and soul teasers added by the composer, which will keep every member of the audience engaged,” Shpitko says.
As for engaging the local Latino community, one of Ramírez’ new educational projects is the Casa de la Cultura-Atlanta (Institute of Culture), launched last year. In residence at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead, the institute works to interest the Latino community in music. “We give music classes to many Mexican and Latino children who have never played an instrument or are not familiar with their cultural legacy,” Ramírez explains. “We did our first performance at the [Atlanta] History Center, and now we are enrolling many children in choir, instrumental discipline and folk dance from Mexico.”
He also had several meetings with ASO administrators before the 2011-12 season to try to find ways for the orchestra to reach out to the Latino community. As a result, he formed an ensemble for that purpose. Since its debut in the Fox Theatre’s Egyptian Ballroom on September 16 to celebrate Mexican Independence Day, the group has performed four times, in concerts that included Ramírez’s own compositions and arrangements of traditional Latin music. Its next concert will be intended for children; the venue and date are expected to be announced within the week.