Juan Ramirez loves to show off his peppers. With very little prompting, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra violinist will take out his iPhone and, over a light lunch while on break from symphony rehearsal, scroll through plentiful pictures of his chilies.
Ramirez, 73, has performed in the ASO violin section since he arrived in Atlanta from Boston in the mid-‘70s. During that time, the Mexican immigrant has become a highly visible leader in the community who has helped educate young musicians and shape community orchestras for three decades. Ramirez is the founding artistic director and conductor for the Buckhead Youth Orchestra, and the music director and conductor of the Atlanta Community Symphony, a position he’s held for 19 seasons. He also founded the Atlanta Virtuosi Foundation, an organization dedicated to educating youth and exposing them to orchestral experiences.
To unwind from all this activity, Ramirez turns to peppers, cultivating more than 70 varieties in his backyard garden in Doraville, where he lives with his wife, Carol, also an ASO violinist. His phone is filled with shots of intensely vibrant red peppers — some sticking straight up from the vine, like spicy stalagmites, others piled on a kitchen table, ready to be ground up and stored for later or chopped up and incorporated into salsas.
“These kinds of peppers, you can’t find them in the stores,” he said as he points to a mountainous pile of waxy peppers. Many are grown from seeds collected during far-reaching trips around the globe as an educator and performer. “The last two weeks I have not been able to see my garden except from afar,” he lamented.
The intensity of his pepper avocation had been eclipsed by his dedication to classical music and the sounds of his native Mexico. He’s simply had no time for his garden due to weeks-long stretches of ASO outreach, performing, rehearsing and teaching. As a key organizer of ASO community outreach programs, Ramirez brings tailored musical programs to events around the city.
Work ethic came to Ramirez early. One of 10 children, Ramirez grew up watching his mother work tirelessly, raising the family in Madero City,Mexico, while running a general store. His father, an engineer in the oil industry, made sure each of his brothers and sisters received music lessons from an early age.
He still remembers his mother’s reply when asked if she’d ever ease up on her workload: “One day I’ll take a break, the final break, and then I’ll rest.”
For his tireless dedication to community outreach, Ramirez has won two awards this year, one national and one international.
Last summer, the League of American Orchestras presented him with the Ford Musicians Award, which recognizes five musicians around the country each year for their outreach work. That work is essential to the viability of orchestras, said John-Morgan Bush, director of learning and leadership programs for the League of American Orchestras.
“You have to be engaged with your community,” Bush said. “Communities are the people who support the orchestra, and orchestras should be supporting their communities. There’s a relationship there that’s fundamental to their existence.”
Selecting Ramirez for the award was an obvious choice.
“We were so intrigued by this incredible breadth and scope of Juan’s work over the course of his career,” said Bush. “He really embodied and demonstrated that he would mold himself to whatever role was needed to make sure the work got done. There was this really deep level of personal responsibility that came through.”
In October, during a concert at the Atlanta History Center’s Day of the Dead celebration, Javier Diaz de Leon, consul general of Mexico in Atlanta, gave Ramirez the Ohtli Award in recognition of his decades of work in Atlanta’s Latin communities.
“This is an award given to people who pave the path, pave the road, for people that are coming after them,” de Leon said at the ceremony. “This is exactly what Juan Ramirez has been doing here in Atlanta for a long time.”
Minutes later, the silver Ohtli medal draped around his neck, Ramirez took up a classical guitar, strumming flamenco-style rhythms with his nails, leading a group of 15 volunteer ASO musicians in a program of Latin American folk songs, music by Hispanic composers and his own arrangements. Around 400 people, many with playful children, had packed a small auditorium for the performance. They listened carefully to “Perfums de gardenia,” “Vasija de Barro” and other tunes that evoked soundscapes worlds away from the usual ASO fare.
Ramirez relishes community concerts this, where he can engineer a specific, cultural program of music for an eager audience.
“People come to the museum to see it, but the museum never goes out to the community,” Ramirez said. “The symphony can do that. I think we really need to reach out to other communities.”
The ASO’s outreach programs rely on the musicians to create specific, engaging programs for community groups, said ASO President Jennifer Barlament. In this way, the “relationships and passions and the cultural identity” of the musicians shapes each community program, she said. Barlament singles out Ramirez as one of the primary drivers of the ASO’s program.
“Juan is kind of the superstar,” she said. “His mode is ambassadorial all the time. He’s constantly being an evangelist for music.”
ASO outreach isn’t specifically about creating new audiences for symphony concerts or creating symphony converts, Barlament said. Outreach is a “gift to the community,” she said, and another way for the symphony to connect with the neighborhoods and the cultures that dot the metro area.
“We have some amazing musicians who do some really incredible work throughout the community,” she said, “but Juan’s the one who I would say is probably the best at partnering with significant community partners and really figuring out what it is we can do to help them.”
For Ramirez, community outreach is simply part of his love of music. And when one of his projects ends, more will crop up. After he steps down from his role with the Atlanta Community Orchestra at the end of the season, he will still have many non-ASO projects to contemplate. Ramirez is currently working on scores for two films and an opera about Maximilian I of Mexico and his wife Carlota. And there are always his pepper gardens — perhaps even a cookbook.
“I wanted to do something on the different techniques of doing salsas, guacamoles and moles,” he said. “I’ve been [performing] for many years, and I’m pretty close to thinking I need some time off.”
While he might ease up in the future, Ramirez will remain dedicated to community outreach and bringing music into the diverse communities of the city.
“Coming here in ’74, Atlanta was not the same as Atlanta is now,” he said. “We have so many communities. We need to reach out to them.”