By Ted AYALA
The “Latin American boom” was a time of unprecedented growth and exploration in the literature of Hispanophone America; a time when writers like Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others, enriched their literary soil with an infusion of the modernism of the U.S. and Europe. It was a period that saw the writers of the region emerge from the fringes and assert their rightful place alongside the best of the U.S. and Europe – the best anywhere.
One could make the argument for a similar “boom” taking place currently in the early years of the 21st century, now in the field of classical music. Latin Americans and U.S. Americans of Hispanic descent are in the ascendant, making their presence known the world over. They tend to get typecast as ultra-emotive, ultra-passionate types, it’s true. There is much more to the Latin American soul than just “fuego” and “pasión.” Tito Muñoz, the recent Pasadena Symphony’s guest conductor, was a fine example. Passion there was in his conducting, yes. But also control, elegance and logic.
Just shy of his 30th year, Muñoz has amassed an impressive résumé with assistant conducting posts at Cincinnati and Cleveland. His reviews, too, have been very positive – an impression reinforced by his latest Pasadena engagement, his second one since the orchestra parted ways with Jorge Mester a few years ago.
The program’s center of gravity was the massive, sometimes stodgy “Symphony No. 1” of Johannes Brahms. A fine performance of the piece is always welcome, but anything less than that can make the work a colossal bore. Muñoz, fortunately for his Saturday afternoon audience, avoided that. Instead he presented Brahms shorn of fat. It was lean; handsomely sculpted. Think of old Johannes as if he had just gone through some fabulous make-over and you’ll get the idea. But it was never glitzy. Muñoz kept just enough of the Brahms grit for it to remain authentic. Muñoz’s preference for clean textures and forward momentum made it a very rewarding experience.
Preceding the Brahms was the “Violin Concerto in D Minor” of Jean Sibelius, part of the core of the violinist’s repertoire. The soloist, the diminutively proportioned Caroline Goulding, presented a craggy, big-jawed Sibelius light years away from the polish of Jascha Heifetz, for one. It was all the more better for it. The wide, barren landscapes of Finland, the severe beauty of its vistas opened up before the listener with Goulding pouring out the Finnish melos from her instrument.
At the start of the program was a brief chip by local composer and Pasadena Symphony composer-in-residence Peter Boyer. His “Apollo” from his “Three Olympians” was an attractive curtain raiser for string ensemble. The composer claimed inspiration from classical Greece in the work. But the broad melodies and hint of pastoral modality suggest that the Boyer’s Greek gods made a layover in Edward Elgar’s Sussex on their way to Altadena.