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Review: Symphony breathes lush life into Emilio’s songs

February 1, 2019

The late Emilio Navaira was a Tejano music god.

So, it seemed only fitting on Thursday at a San Antonio Symphony concert at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts that his music would sound heavenly.

Led by his two oldest sons, Emilio Navaira IV and Diego Navaira, and including members of his Grupo Rio band, Navaira’s music was honored with a sweet and lush symphonic kiss.

The young Navaira Brothers — Emilio IV is 29; Diego is 27 — are members of the hot Nashville act Last Bandoleros, which added to the buzz of the fun, sometimes emotional, night.

Conducted by Youth Orchestras of San Antonio director Troy Peters, symphony opened with the majestic sweep of “La Bota,” a song which would have fit nicely in John Wayne’s “The Alamo.”

As they hit the stage, the brothers and Grupo Rio received a standing ovation complete with Market Square-worthy gritos from the nearly 1,300 fans in attendance.

The musicians did not disappoint, launching into the classic Tejano dance song, “Bailando Contigo.”

Diego Navaira sang lead on the catchy pop with brother Emilio IV adding Fender Telecaster electric guitar and harmony vocals.

The pizzazz was instantly evident.

Symphony strings augmented the familiar Tejano synth fills, button accordion chords, flashy drums and characteristic multiple key changes, highlighting the underlying sophistication of the music.

“This night is about celebrating the amazing life of my Dad,” Diego Navaira said.

And simply put, Emilio Navaira’s life - from his heyday to his comeback years -- was about his Tejano pop music which always came gift wrapped with huge choruses and was delivered with the emotion of a balladeer and the dance steps of a showman black hat cowboy.

The 17-song night and its two encores offered elements of minor key tangos, dramatic bolero flourishes, tropical, cumbia and rock ‘n’ roll and country.

Music lover Vic Sanchez, his girlfriend and mom sat in the second row. Sanchez said he wanted to get close.

“Just to feel it all,” said Sanchez, 42. “The combination of the symphony and Tejano is amazing.”

His date, Jackie Sanchez, couldn’t resist adding, “They should have done this a long time ago.”

Actually, back in the ’90s, Navaira (who died in May 2016 at age 53) twice performed with the San Antonio Symphony and other orchestras around the country.

KEDA DJ and musician Eloy Espinoza was also in the house. He still spins Emilio on 1540 AM and 99.9 FM.

“Emilio was a treasure,” said Espinoza. “This is huge for Tejano music, which needs a boost.”

Emilio Navaira, and the late Tejano queen Selena, are associated with the genre’s late 1980s and mid-’90s glory days, now long gone. But those distant memories came rushing back at the Tobin.

And there were new twists. For example, “Hoy Me Siento Feliz” had never been played live before.

“I knew you wanted to party,” said Diego Navaira, smiling as fans whooped it up during the danceable “Quedate.”

“¡Qué vive Emilio!” fans screamed near the end of the first 30-minute set.

After intermission, the orchestra tuned up and opened with the playful and romantic “No Quiero Nada Contigo” as the Navairas walked back onstage to the plucked “On Broadway” flavored strains.

“Naciste Para Mi” revealed the late singer’s love of hard rock (think Boston and Van Halen) and Mexican American music.

The music is so catchy; the only thing missing was “the wave” during “Eclipse.” No translation was needed with a beat this irresistible.

“This is still a dance, still a Tejano show,” said Diego before the light cumbia pop, “Esperando Su Llamada.”

One of the most dramatic moments of the night came with Diego Navaira singing solo with the symphony on the heartbreaking piano ballad “Promesas,” written by his aunt.

At 9:27 p.m., the Tobin erupted into a singalong when Raulito Navaira — the famous songwriting brother and dancer — showed up to sing with his nephews, beginning with “¿Como le Hare?”

He and Diego couldn’t resist going into the “Emilio Shuffle” dance, a circular, showy move on “Remedio de Amor.”

How to top that? Throw your hat into the audience.

Thursday’s winning show — which ended with the signature “Juntos” (written by Emilio Navaira and his first wife, Cynthia) and “It’s Not the End of the World” — flowed like a favorite mixtape.

The sound rocked, the musical marriage was strong and lively, and the songs a reminder of how good dad was — and how talented the sons are.

“This is so beautiful,” said Emilio IV. Musically and emotionally, the words rang true.

Hector Saldana is curator of the Texas Music Collection at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.

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