Orchestra director Juli Powers raises a bright green baton before 14 middle school string players. She feels the maestro’s presence as their bows pause at the ready, eager for the downbeat.
The first measure comes to life. Sound bounces around the state-of-the-art music room at Eduardo Mata Montessori School, making its way into Powers’ office located just behind the cellos.
“I’ve got Mata’s portrait hanging in there, in my office,” said Powers, still holding her baton. “He’s in there, looking over my shoulder like he’s saying, ‘You’ve got to make this place great.’”
Eduardo Mata, who was born in 1942 in Mexico City, left a legacy of inspiring Hispanic musicians and preserving music education in schools. He was the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s first and only Latin-American music director. Mata died in a plane crash en route to Dallas in 1995.
In 1997, Dallas ISD established the Montessori school, naming it in honor of the longest-serving music director in the DSO’s history. Initially, it served students in pre-K through fifth grade.
Powers, who played in the Dallas Wind Symphony for 30 years, came to Mata in 2019, just before the school expanded to the eighth grade and established its middle school orchestra.
“I wanted to teach here because of the name of the school,” Powers said. “I do everything I can to be like him because he really wanted children to have music accessibility.”
Powers, who taught at another middle school for 18 years, was eager to build out the program at Mata — even if it meant starting out in a cramped, one-room space where Mata’s portrait looked on from atop a filing cabinet.
“I wanted to put my mark on that and make something great for the next person to step in and have a really good orchestra,” she said.
The Montessori opened a new building in 2020 to accommodate the middle schoolers. It included a new, larger orchestra area designed by musicians, with practice rooms and recording technology.
“I think he’d be proud that we moved along, got our space, and the program grew,” she said of the maestro. “We’ve got over 100 kids now, so I feel like it’s on the right course.”
Those close to Mata described him as warm and passionate about music, especially about sharing the love of classical music across diverse communities. At the time of his death, he’d been working with orchestras in Venezuela, New Zealand and Mexico.
The school, which is predominately made up of Latino students, partners with the DSO to provide children with free private and group lessons from symphony musicians. The DSO also sends string quartets and brass groups to the campus to perform.
“We’ve had a lot of musical experiences on our campus, either the kids performing or people coming to perform for us,” said Michelle Vallejo, elementary music and modern band teacher. “They’re exposed to music at an early age, so I think that gets their interest going.”
Fifth graders take a regular field trip to the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center to watch the Dallas Winds or the DSO perform. The Meyerson, built in 1989 during Mata’s tenure, showcases a plaque with his name and portrait.
“Walking by his picture brings the school’s name to life for them,” Vallejo said. They get to see what our school is about. In other schools, you don’t always see or show the person the school is named for.”
Principal Tomeka Middleton-Williams said fine arts education is integral to the school’s Montessori mission of educating the whole child.
“You want to make sure the kids know the reading, writing and arithmetic but also develop their creative genius, the imagination — the spark of the fine arts,” Middleton-Williams said.
The wall across from the glass doors of the school’s cafeteria displays a colorful mural of Mata that spans the length of the hallway.
Mata was named winner of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts in 1991. Upon learning of the honor, he said, “I hope that I can remain an example in the field of classical music to Hispanic people everywhere.”