Thursday, August 08, 2002

Latin composers add heat to the beat

Orchestras discover south-of-the-border sounds

By Janelle Gelfand,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When conductor Gisele Ben-Dor went hunting for great Latin American music, she couldn't believe how much she found.

        “I thought it was unbelievable, not only for musicians to see the potential of the music, but the thought that no one has done it before,” says the Uruguayan-American conductor. “It's almost a horror to think, 'What else is there that we should have known about?' ”

[photo] Gisele Ben-Dor, music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony.
(Beatriz Schiller photo)
| ZOOM |
        Mix equal parts tango, bolero, modinha and malambo with symphonies and oratorios, simmer for a century or two in Cuba, Mexico or South America — and you have a rich and colorful recipe for Latin American classical music.

        Ms. Ben-Dor, who is music director of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Symphony, is just one of many musicians who is discovering the musical riches from south of the border.

        She and others, such as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and hot groups such as the Kronos and St. Lawrence quartets, are programming and recording lush ballets, film music, symphonies and quartets by composers such as Alberto Ginastera, Silvestre Revueltas and an up-and-coming Argentinian named Osvaldo Golijov.

        Mr. Golijov's Grammy-nominated Passion, La Pasion Segun San Marcos, “is a salsa party,” says violinist Barry Shiffman of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. “At the end of the world premiere performance, the rather staid (German) audience went utterly crazy for 30 minutes. They were screaming, as if it was a rock concert. There was a similar reaction in Boston.”

        It's no coincidence that as cities become more diverse, orchestras and opera companies are looking to Latin music to add fire to their programs. Greater Cincinnati's Hispanic population increased 136 percent during the last decade, from 9,456 to 22,303, according to the 2000 Census. With a new release of Mr. Golijov's music by the St. Lawrence String Quartet (Yiddishbbuk; EMI Classics), a new Latin disc and a Cincinnati concert by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet coming in September (LAGQ Latin; Telarc), and a treasure-trove of Latino music recorded by Ms. Ben-Dor, there's no better time for sampling.

        Last month, five classical CDs were nominated for Latin Grammy Awards. The winners will be announced Sept. 18 in Los Angeles.

More than tango

        Latino music is more than tangos, Ms. Ben-Dor says.

        “You'll find that everyone knows (tango master) Astor Piazzolla. I don't think they're even aware how serious his writing can be. But we have to start somewhere,” she says.

    What: Coinciding with the release of its Latin album, The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ), presented by WGUC-FM (90.9)
   When: 7:30 p.m., Sept. 17
   Where: Corbett Auditorium, University of Cincinnati
   Tickets: $40 preferred seating; $25 general admission. 241-8282 or visit
        She started with two composers: Argentina's Ginastera, whose stunning ballets evoke the Pampas, and Mexico's Revueltas, a composer of astonishing breadth, who revolutionized his country's music before dying of alcoholism at the age of 40 in 1940.

        Except for works like the oft-played tone poem Sensemaya, Revueltas' other music is little known.

        “He was a modernist through and through, with very challenging music,” Ms. Ben-Dor says. “He was quite an enfant terrible in many ways; very Charles Ives-ish in the way he took things apart. At the same time, he has these melting, heartbreaking melodies.”

        In 2000, she mounted a four-day festival of Revueltas' music in Santa Barbara.

        “Even a brief visit to the festival for its last two concerts was enough to reveal just how remarkable a figure Revueltas was,” wrote Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times. “Among Revueltas' great achievements was his film music, although the 10 films he scored are virtually unknown in America.”

        During the festival, Ms. Ben-Dor presented several films, including Redes (Nets), a 1934 classic by Paul Strand, while her orchestra performed the score live. A puppet show featuring Revueltas' music was sold out, largely with families from the Hispanic community.

        In much the same way that painter Diego Rivera's art was revolutionary, Revueltas' radical politics turn up in his music. La Coronela (The Lady Colonel), a ballet that Ms. Ben-Dor has also recorded as a suite, depicts the fight between the upper class and the downtrodden.

        “Everything made a strong impression on him, particularly the (Mexican) Revolution,” Ms. Ben-Dor says. “His music is always tinged with melancholy; then there is brutality.”

        Ms. Ben-Dor is also striving to give more exposure to the music of Ginastera, an Argentinian who wrote operas, ballets and chamber music but is mainly known here for his piano pieces.

        In February, she will conduct the world premiere of an orchestrated version of Ginastera's Cinco Danzas Criollas, originally for piano, with the Toledo (Ohio) Symphony (tickets: 800-348-1253).

Trial and error

        Even though Latino names are well-known in popular music and jazz — Ricky Martin, Arturo Sandoval, Selena and Gloria Estefan — learning about Latin classical music sometimes takes trial and error. The 42-year-old Mr. Golijov is swamped with commissions through 2007. But in 1992, when the St. Lawrence String Quartet, then a group of students, was asked to learn his string quartet, Yiddishbbuk, he was unknown.

        “To be honest, we were more interested in Beethoven quartets. We grudgingly took on this task,” says violinist Mr. Shiffman. “The music didn't look like anything we'd seen before, and we couldn't make head nor tails of it.”

        Then the composer met with them.

        “He started to sing what he'd written. At that moment, the entire quartet felt very small,” Mr. Shiffman says. “Here's this enlightened musician with a completely stunning conviction, singing these sounds we'd never heard before. We worked with him intensely for a week, and we realized this quartet was something truly great.”

        Mr. Golijov and another Argentinian, Jorge Liderman, “combine many cultures into something new and universal,” says Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, a champion of Latino music.

        “You can hear tango, you can hear klezmer and Sephardic folk music, all in a framework where it doesn't work anymore to say "popular' or "classical,' "high art' or "low' — even worse — cross-over! They have erased those borders from the map.”

        “There's so much that we just don't know about,” says Rodney Winther, professor at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

        In July, Dr. Winther took the CCM Chamber Players to Caracas, Venezuela, to a new music festival, “Festival A Tempo.” They were the first Americans to participate there since the festival was founded nine years ago. They performed music by American and Latin American composers.

        “Our three concerts were sold out, and there were standing ovations — this for heavy-duty contemporary music,” he says. “Part of it was curiosity; they have cultivated a real appreciation for composers of their own culture.”

        A Latin presence has steadily picked up tempo among American classical organizations. In 1996, Houston Grand Opera gave the world premiere of Mexican-born Daniel Catan's Florencia en el Amazonas, a magical opera set in the lush world of the Amazon. In 1993, the company presented Robert Rodriguez's Frida, on the life of famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who died in 1954.

        (Ms. Kahlo is also the subject of an upcoming Miramax film starring Mexican actress Salma Hayek.)

        This season, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will present a two-week festival of Latin influences on U.S. culture, including concert performances of John Adams' Nativity oratorio El Nino, a showing of the film Redes with Revueltas' music, and the world premiere of Mexican Gabriela Ortiz's Concerto for Percussion.

        The festival will include chamber music concerts, poetry readings, photography and art exhibits, panel discussions and other events in collaboration with the Latin-American Cinemateca of Los Angeles.

        “In LA, Latin American culture is a huge and lively part of the picture,” LA Philharmonic's music director Mr. Salonen says. “The music is not only salsa, of course. Great classical composers like Revueltas and (Carlos) Chavez are figures of world importance.”

        The orchestra's all-Revueltas album, Sensemaya (Sony Classical) was nominated for a Grammy in 2000.

        “I love (Revueltas') La Noche de los Mayas because everything comes together: The Indian influences, the spiky modernism, the immediate gut appeal,” Mr. Salonen says. “I love it that when we play that piece here, people take to it as "theirs,' and when our CD came out, it was almost a pop phenomenon.”

Lack of clout

        So why haven't we known more about Latin American music until now? It has to do with distance, politics and attitude, musicians and composers say.

        “We cut ourselves off from Cuba in the '30s, when it was one of the leading areas of Latin American music,” Dr. Winther says. “When we did that, we cut ourselves off from the rest of the countries as well.”

        Although there are some fine orchestras and opera companies in Latin America, they are relatively unknown in the United States because they don't tour or record, Ms. Ben-Dor says.

        “They have not had the power, the money, the clout or the priority to promote their music,” she says. “Conductors are the ones who will push the music forward. How many Latin American conductors of note do you know?”

        Another reason is more subtle, and perhaps more controversial, she says.

        “I think we look down on them. I'm one of them — but I don't think that they are perceived as having developed such a high culture.”

        Although Latino music is often segregated into separate concerts and festivals, it is finally seeping into the mainstream, says Mexican composer Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, a former CCM faculty member. He hopes that people will learn that Latin American music is as multifaceted as any other.

        “The artistic craft is alive,” he says. “It's beautiful music and very different.”

Related stories:
Latin composers revive a connection to folk art
Latin composers emerge in U.S. spotlight
CD reviews: Sample some salsa, from mild to wild

First date: Consider it a fact-finding mission
- Latin composers add heat to the beat
KNIPPENBERG: Knip's Eye View
Hip-hop DJ spins his way to the top
Playhouse opens new worlds to new generations
The Early Word
Top 10s
Get to it