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The Sound, The Fury, The Awesome Joy

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium Carnegie Hall
02/27/2018 -  & February 22 (New Orleans), 23 (Covington), 24 (New Orleans), 2018
Silvestre Revueltas: La noche de los Mayas
Philip Glass: Days and Nights in Rocinha – Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra

Jim Atwood, Paul Yancich (Timpanists)
Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Carlos Miguel Prieto (Conductor)

C. M. Prieto (© Benjamin Ealovega)

“Revueltas is inspired like Schubert was inspired His music is a spontaneous outpouring, a strong expression of his inner emotions. There is nothing premeditated or unspontaneous about him. When seized with the creative urge, he has been known to spend days on end without food or sleep until the piece was finished.”
Aaron Copland

They may be a most unlikely orchestra in New York, but the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra went anything but gentle into that Carnegie Hall night. Quite the opposite. The quarter-century-old 67-person ensemble–augmented by around 25 guest musicians–was visually dwarfed by nine kettledrums, three of the four pieces were drowned out by bass drums and castanets and monstrously loud sounds. Their zesty musical director/conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto let hardly a measure go by without creating sounds which reached the rafters (and certainly reached Philip Glass, who was sitting in the highest balcony), testing out a brass section which resembled a chorale of conches or a herd of wild felines.

And when a friend asked me this morning how to rate the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, I couldn’t honestly tell him. We were blanketed with sound.

Oh, one exception. Philip Glass’s tribute to a Rio de Janeiro samba-school, Days and Nights in Rocinha. This was Boléro territory. One languid samba rhythm repeated incessantly by the low strings, with repetition after repetition of two themes by parts of the orchestra.

Ravel had the good sense to give us a crescendo and a surprise modulation at the end. Mr. Glass, entranced by his own music, let it continue for a very long 23 minutes. But at least we could hear the Louisiana Philharmonic First Chairs and consorts, and they sounded awfully good.

That, though, was Mr. Prieto’s entr’acte for a enthusiastically noisy show, starting with Silvestre Revueltas’ 1939 film music, arranged as a four-movement suite. I had heard this before when Gustavo Dudamel brought his Simón Bolívar Orchestra here. That was equally noisy, and had the light enthusiasm of youth. Always the disciplinarian, Mr. Dudamel led the large percussion session to a crazily loud climax, and it never got out of hand.

Nor did Mr. Prieto. Always a champion of his native Mexico, he started off with La noche de los Mayas. The movie was famous in its day, and still can be seen in a grainy YouTube version. Some of the music is dreamy, but most has the feeling of the Guatemala music I had lived with several years ago. (The Yucatán Peninsula extends from Mexico to Guatemala, one of the great settings in the world.)

It started out with a two-note theme, a minor-third, and the interruptions came from–I think–tuba and bass trombone. Obviously the sound of a conch played by shaman or religious sachem.

But Mr. Prieto’s tour de force–literally–were the 14 (14!!) percussionists spreading over the back of the stage. At first, theirs was the background of the other orchestral music. The last movement, though, was a percussion cadenza lasting around 15 minutes, with every player taking turns, or harmonizing, and making as grand a sound as possible.

While I couldn’t see what they were playing, a score I had for the Dudamel performance listed bongos, snares, xylophone and harp, as well as oddities like guiro, huehuetl, sonajas, tumbadora and of course the immortal tumkul.

All of which apparently were obtained by the Louisiana Phil.

Actually Revuletas never wrote that music. It was added by José Yves Limantour, who arranged the suite from the film. The tragedy was that of Revuletas himself, a political Leftist who had studied and worked in the United States, and returned to Mexico, relegated to film music, dying of alcoholism and poverty.

The latter is a paradox, for Revueltas was paraded by Aaron Copland as one of the great South American composers. Why he wasn’t helped in those years is a question. Certainly, though, The Night of the Mayas is a tribute to his spontaneous music-making, his vast colorful palette and–despite being compared to Stravinsky–a more original voice.

P. Yancich/J. Atwood (© Roger Mastroianni/Courtesy of the Artist)

The Philip Glass Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra was far more than a showpiece for a pair of virtuosos kettle-drum whackers. Jim Atwood and Paul Yancich stood behind those nine kettledrums which were placed like Easter Island statues from the start of the program. They were obviously muscular masters of their craft.

Sorry, masters of their art. The sounds of the instruments might have blended into each other. But watching them, it was obvious this was virtually Bachian counterpoint. Their two hands and four sticks and nine instruments were of course with a variety of volumes. But watching them was a treat in itself.

Philip Glass didn’t stint on other percussion either. In the last movement, after a wild cadenza for the two, the Louisiana Phil built up a passionate finale, whirling with the whole orchestra, hushing down and then becoming even more loud, more spirited.

Mr. Glass stood in honor of the players–but the audience honored him. And Maestro Carlos Miguel Prieto had a surprise for those who hadn’t had enough drumming. In the audience was Gabriela Ortiz, an extremely accomplished Mexican composer who had written her Concerto Voltage for the orchestra.

For about 15 minutes, the entire Phil–their 14 percussionists, their two guest kettledrummers and a jubilant strings section (which included whirling double-basses)–again made Carnegie Hall bounce.

I still don’t know how Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and Maestro Prieto would sound for Mozart or Berlioz or Debussy or Charles Ives. But what they gave us New Yorkers last night was a rare, tumultuous, primal, percussive, explosive joy.

Harry Rolnick



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