Festival: Los Sonidos de Mexico
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
Marquez: Danzón II
Catán: Caribbean Airs (World Premiere)
Ponce: Tres Canciones populares Mexicanas
Diemecke: Concierto a Celedonio
Ana Lara: Angels of Darkness and Dawn
Pepe Romero (guitar)
The Pacific Symphony, Carl St. Clair (conductor)
The revelation of this year’s American Composer’s festival with the Pacific Symphony, “Los Sonidos de Mexico,” was to unearth an entire tradition and repertoire that is largely unknown, but that also sounds intimately familiar. The landscape of classical music written in Mexico over the last few centuries is surprisingly diverse, and perhaps even more intriguing than the tradition of classical music played and composed here in the United States. Here in the US, an impressive universe of music came into existence in the 20th century, but more in realm of star performers of European music than contemporary composers, although the modernist US tradition in composition has also been formidable. Here north of the border, and in Europe also, we have largely been unaware of most of the Mexican and Latin American classical music. But the rhythms, sounds and instruments of that music also flavor the popular music of Latin America, and those influences have flooded across the border and are all around us.
Many of us are aware that Latin American literature has become hugely important over that last several decades. Now we are beginning to see a parallel in serious music as well. The recent appoint of the young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel to lead the LA Philharmonic will accelerate this process, and hopefully begin to bring the local Latino audience into the concert hall as well. The audience itself was another revelation of this festival. Latinos young and old came out in force. It was a particular delight to see the hall filled with well-dressed teenagers enjoying the glorious music of their own venerable culture, in a fancy place usually populated by gray haired Caucasians.
The Pacific Symphony team, including Artistic Advisor Joseph Horowitz, conductors Carl St. Clair and Enrique Arturo Diemecke, and their colleagues, put together an extraordinary program of breadth, scope and depth. The festival surveyed the history of Mexican classical music and culture and at the same time offered the cutting edge of contemporary composition. The pieces by living composers were the most exiting of all: Daniel Catán - whose opera “Il Postino” will be premiered in Los Angeles with Placido Domingo and Rolando Villazón, will undoubtedly be performed more and more often. The lesser-known Ana Lara proved to be a major discovery.
The central concert of the festival began with Arturo Marquez’ Danzón II from 1994. The popular danzón form that was born in Havana but took root in Mexico’s Veracruz inspired this sexy, ten-minute symphonic poem. In the concert hall, Marquez’ gorgeous version of the dance seemed to bridge the gap from Havana to the Salle Pleyel, from the steamy night club scenes of the Godfather II to Ravel’s Bolero. The accelerando leading up the climax was spectacular.
The best-known piece on the program, Silveste Revueltas “Caminos,” from 1934, opens with the bright cacophony of a Mexican village festival band. This eight-minute “sound mural” seems to begin right in the middle of the village fête, and to have no real ending. If Stravinsky’s Petrushka had been a Mexican puppet, set loose from the festivities on the Day of the Dead… The piece is just cut off at the end like broad, abrupt slice of colorful bedlam.
The next piece, commissioned for the festival, was the world premiere of Daniel Catán’s “Caribbean Airs.” Employing a battery of drums and percussion not often found in a symphony hall, congas, bongos, and maracas, Catán evoked the languid salt air and the warmth of popular Caribbean music. The color of trumpets set off the percussion, and lent a smooth, lush and sophisticated nightclub feel to the concert hall. The virtuoso drums dominated the first movement, but the second movement created a dramatic contrast by using no drums at all. The third movement blended the techniques of the first two, expanding and melding both the nightclub and the philharmonic into an explosive climax of tremendous cohesion. The piece deserves to be heard often.
After the intermission, the great guitarist Pepe Romero began with a suite of solo pieces “Tres Canciones populares Mexicanas” by Manuel Ponce. These songs, from 1925 and 1926 were atmospheric, subtle and rarified. They are closely related to the Spanish repertoire for the classical guitar, but also distinctly their own, attractive in their novelty and difference. One could listen endlessly to these lyrical airs.
The guitar concerto “Concierto a Celedonio” by the composer and conductor Enrique Arturo Diemecke, was dedicated to Pepe Romero, and written in memory of Celedonio Romero, Pepe’s father and the “pater familias” of the Romero family of guitarists. The piece opens with movement named “Asceledonio,” a stunning dialogue of solo guitar and pizzicati in the first violin and strings. In the second movement, “Evocación” the guitar and oboe play opposite each other in a lush romantic narrative and dialogue. In the final movement, “Asceledonio II,” the conductor, clapping his hands in a syncopated Spanish Flamenco “palmeo,” joins the guitar and orchestra to bring the concerto to a remarkable close.
Pepe Romero’s solo encore, “Fantasia Cubana” by Celedonio Romero, drew an entire orchestra from the guitar, using the body of the instrument for percussion, and playing the strings high up on the bridge, “ sul ponticello.”
In another great discovery of the festival, Ana Lara’s magnificent “Angels of Darkness and Dawn” opened with an explosion, almost literally in the concussive depth and weight of the bass. Although her orchestral tone poem had the nearly the profundity of Mahler and the breadth and color of Debussy’s “La Mer,” she used a technique of scratchy slides in the string section that was all her own. And although there are many phenomenal young composers working today, Ana Lara is herself a major find, a musician gifted with an imagination of symphonic proportions. “Angels of Light and Darkness” may someday make many attractive contemporary pieces seem mere trickery.
Among the other concerts in the festival, “Discover Mexico” on April 15 also offered an introduction to the breadth of the Mexican tradition of classical music, offering selections by Chavez and Ponce, and the contemporary Ana Lara and Arturo Marqez. Arturo Enrique Diemecke served as guest conductor with the Pacific Symphony at the smaller Irvine Barclay Theater. The guitarist Roberto Limon joined the symphony for Manuel Ponce’s “Concierto del Sur” for Guitar and Orchestra. The Ballet Foklorico of the Orange County High School for the Performing Arts staged an Aztec inspired dance. While there is no record of Aztec music, there are many images and sculptures that informed the opening piece of the evening, “Xochipilli” by Carlos Chavez. This atavistic music evoked a ritual filled with fervor, passion and dread, as did the Aztec dance.
Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del Sur for Guitar and Orchestra was captivating, redolent with tropical melody and perfume, and received a great reception. Roberto Limon was the ideal soloist, weaving an enticing and accessible narrative. The second movement evoked a modern French sensibility more than a classical Spanish mood, but the final movement felt distinctly Mexican.
Ana Lara’s “Canticum Sacrum” began as a traditional liturgical piece and then gradually emerged into the modern world, leaning into dissonance as a one eyed horse racing through a field at night might lean into the darkness. Composed first as a choral piece, and then arranged for string orchestra, the influence of Gregorian chant and heterophony was apparent in the dark blurred melodies. The spiritual minimalism of Arvo Part hovered in the distance. Lara’s “Serenata for wind quintet and string orchestra” comprised six diverse short pieces composed in part as exercises for young musicians.
The final piece of the evening was Arturo Marquez’ Danzón No. 3, originally composed for the flute and orchestra but later arranged for the guitar. Maestro Diemecke conducted the piece primarily with his hips and shoulders, very cool, very suave, very sexy, and full of good humor, as if he was sharing a enticing inside joke with the entire audience. The concerto also had a bit of a Klezmer feel, with a solo violin joining the guitar and oboe in rhythmic dance. The accelerando in the finale made for a thrilling, steamy climax.
The program notes and the festival publications were also excellent, thorough and intriguing. The one concert that I missed, “Mexican Tapestries,” was held in the intimate Samueli Hall and was made up of Mexican Baroque and chamber music, including the piano and guitar. The program constituted a tour of the history of Mexican visual art and music from the Aztecs through the twentieth century. I was sorry to miss it, as I heard it was one of the highlights of the season.
Thomas Aujero Small