By Ted AYALA
“Nationalist music,” writes José Antonio Alcaraz in his “Reflexiones sobre el nacionalismo musical mexicano” (Reflections on Mexican Musical Nationalism), “[carries] with it echoes of the sectarian, the limiting, the ensnaring. National music, however, consists of the most essential traits that make up the identity of a person.”
“To describe Tchaikovsky as a ‘nationalist,’” he added, “would clearly be false; nevertheless, it is ‘national’ music in that it embodies the soul of his nation.”
It was an ideal that the three composers who made up the Santa Cecilia Orchestra’s program on Sunday all strive for in their works. This is music that is proud of its roots, is national without ever descending into the hectoring rhetoric of nationalism; it is cosmopolitan, never provincialist.
The works that book-ended the program, Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture” and Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4,” are two of the very best-known examples of music by composers whose feet are firmly planted in the soil of their birth, yet equally diligently open themselves up to influences and trends beyond the borders of their homelands.
It is also an outlook that informs the work of Arturo Márquez, whose own life – born in Mexico, raised in the United States – reflects this artistic vision.
His “Danzón No. 8” and “Mascaras: La pasión según San Juan de Letrán,” which were given their California and United States premieres respectively on Sunday, were alive with the rhythmic and melodic verve that distinguish the best of Latin American music. And orchestral showpieces though they may be, they never stoop to condescend to its audience or to its self.
The glossy, subtle textures of the former work made a striking contrast with Márquez’s splashier, better known compositions. A tropical concerto grosso for flute, oboe, two clarinets, harp and small orchestra pervaded with a misting of melancholy, Mascaras is some of the composer’s finest work to date. The concertante group consisting of Salpy Kerkonian (flute and piccolo), Sarah Beck (oboe), Michael Arnold and Ryan Walsh (clarinets), and Andrea Puente (harp) could hardly be bettered; the chamber-like attentiveness to the orchestra and themselves resulting in a performance of restrained beauty and power.
Restraint also characterized the performances of the Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. They were stately, controlled, with music director Sonia Marie de León de Vega’s underlining of the bass adding to their grandeur. If in the Tchaikovsky one at times wished for the collar to be slightly loosened, the Dvořák on the other hand adroitly depicted the Bohemian’s merry-making in a performance that glowed with a coruscating display of the Santa Cecilia’s prowess and virtuosity. Concertmaster Zhao Yi-Huan brought a melting warmth to his solos that reminded the listener not only of the orchestra’s excellence as an ensemble, but the superlative musicians that make up its ranks.