If one were to think of traits that define what Latin American music means to audiences outside the region of its provenance, then surely it can be reduced to a single word: rhythm. Whether in popular music, in which dances have become known the world over, or in its take on classical music, rhythm has been the lifeblood of the region’s melos.
The Santa Cecilia Orchestra in its final concert of the season – a concert traditionally showcasing classical works from Latin America – on Sunday brought that definition to life with the incandescent vibrancy and artistry the orchestra’s followers have come to know and expect. As always the orchestra was at its virtuosic finest; not merely going through the motions, but playing the music with the fervency of true believers.
It also was an occasion that not only celebrated past glories of Hispanophone culture, but also directed the spotlight to those whose labors carry on and enrich the work of their forbears.
Especially notable in this regard was “Leyenda de Milano” by Arturo Márquez, a two movement work that received its Los Angeles premiere with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra.
A tribute to the life of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, the work surprised with its uneasy and even jarring juxtapositions of seriousness with grotesque humor. Launching headlong with a pulsating, iambic rhythm in the strings while a baleful muted trumpet soliloquized over this feverish musical landscape, the music immediately sounded quite unlike Márquez’s other work, which often draws upon dance music as inspiration. Gripping and grim by turns, it was music whose welcome and powerful impression was set all the more by its unexpectedness. The final movement, the “Canto funebre de cigarras,” which followed the first without a break, was extraordinary indeed, perhaps Márquez’s finest work. Moments of solemnity would be spiked with sarcastic jabs leading to climaxes of roof-rattling power that teetered nervously and ambiguously between bathos and pathos. Was this a tongue-in-cheek commemoration of one of Mexico’s great historical heroes? Or was it a despairing cry against Zapata’s revolution betrayed, of a Mexico that would continue to be torn by the selfish interests, native and foreign, of a privileged few while its people are marginalized, unable to steer the trajectory of their nation? These and other questions lingered persistently in the mind in the wake of the work’s haunting close: a brassy, major key climax followed by the hushed stir of strings tremolo, evoking the eerie chirping of cicadas.
Yalil Guerra’s “Old Havana” for strings orchestra – commissioned especially for the Santa Cecilia Orchestra which played its world premiere at this concert – was a work in which the hazy reminiscences of pre-Castro era Cuban dance music mingled with Baroque music form, specifically the chaconne. Its opening statement – a severe, descending dotted theme – would dissolve and emerge again, transformed and transfigured through various guises.
Another evocation and blurring of classical and dance styles was the concert’s opening work, Astor Piazzolla’s “Tangazo.” Less a tango, more an homage to the dance albeit spiced with Bartókian musical figures, it was an attractive example of the appeal Piazzolla continues to have with audiences both in his native Argentina and abroad.
Another one of Argentina’s favorite musical sons, Alberto Ginastera, closed the program’s first half. His late 1940s ballet Estancia, from which he extracted the suite in four parts that was played at this concert, has gained some renewed interest by way of it use in the recent film, “The Artist.” Its genial combination of Coplandesque populist simplicity with the driving rhythms of Argentine folk dances has earned the work an enduring place in the repertoire. Its pounding rhythms, which Maestra de León de Vega and her orchestra exorcised with near orgiastic power, left the audience pressed to their seats, nearly limp.
On the other hand, their rendition of Carlos Chavez’s “republican overture,” Chapultepec, displayed the orchestra’s knack for comic timing and Technicolor display. Amounting essentially to goofy arrangements of a march, waltz, and folk dance by composers such as Fernando Villalpando and Rodolfo Campodónico, it gave Chávez plenty of room to show off his musical humor.
Finally bringing the curtain down on the concert was Márquez’s “Conga del Fuego Nuevo.” Here Márquez was in familiar territory; the audience leaping to its feet at the work’s boisterous close.
As always the Santa Cecilia Orchestra played with both sweeping energy and eloquent restraint when needed. The brass and percussion sections carried the day with playing of electric vigor and crisp musicianship. At the helm was Maestra de León de Vega whose charisma elicits playing of breathtaking intensity from her players. If ever in doubt as to the true stature of this music, give the Santa Cecilia Orchestra a moment to persuade you of this music’s greatness.