LA Phil Paints Protean Portrait Of Mexico City Music

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The LA Phil’s category-smashing CDMX festival encompassed music of all kinds coming out of the Mexican capital.

By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – What does CDMX mean? That might have been a question this month on the minds of perplexed Los Angeles Philharmonic listeners, who by now should be used to having their local band throw programming curves at them.

I’ll spare you the suspense. CDMX is the abbreviation for Ciudad de México, the new (as of Jan. 2016) official name for Mexico City, formerly called the DF for Distrito Federal – kind of the equivalent of our District of Columbia. It was also the title of the LA Phil’s latest off-the-wall, out-of-the-ordinary, category-smashing music festival, one that was designed to be a showcase for music coming out of the Mexican capital.

This fall has not been the best of times for this high-altitude metropolitan area of 21.3 million inhabitants, the largest Spanish-speaking population center in the world. A series of devastating earthquakes struck the city in September, and in a quickly appended announcement, the LA Phil decided to give a portion of CDMX ticket sales to UNICEF’s relief efforts.

The festive music of strolling ‘organilleros’ resounds on Mexico City streets. (Wikipedia)

Yet there was hardly a hint of distress or anguish about the disaster in Walt Disney Concert Hall over the course of the festival, which ran Oct. 9-17. The BP Hall, which is usually reserved for pre-concert lectures, became a pastel-colored rumpus room with a pop-up bar and continuous travelogue videos of Mexico City showing on the walls. Four uniformed organilleros cranked out tunes on authentic old barrel organs before the concerts and during intermissions, their low-tech sounds reverberating at almost deafening volume levels in the various lobbies of this high-tech hall. The overall atmosphere was one of fiesta, lubricated for some by servings of tequila and imported Mexican beer from the bar.

I was unable to attend all six CDMX events due to scheduling conflicts in the busiest week of 2017 for music in Los Angeles. But three concerts should give you some idea of the wide scope of this festival, which spread its umbrella — Green or otherwise — over symphonic concert music, jazz, rock, pop, folk, and a lot of film music.

First up on Oct. 9 was an anomaly that bore virtually no resemblance to anything that followed, other than that the sole performer in the concert was born in Mexico City. Jazz drummer Antonio Sánchez, who has lived in the States since 1993 and is best-known in the jazz world for occupying the drum chair in the Pat Metheny Group for several years, played his unusual one-man percussion score for the Oscar-winning film Birdman live on the Disney Hall stage while the film was being screened.

Granted, the Birdman music isn’t entirely the work of Sánchez; there are also pre-recorded extracts from Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Rückert-Lieder, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, Ravel’s Piano Trio, and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. There wasn’t all that much for Sánchez to do; he was off the stage for longer periods than he was at his drum kit.

But when he was playing, Sánchez was well worth hearing, his drums keeping up a creative, swinging groove with an often light touch, stretching out elaborately after the film’s closing credits for nearly seventeen minutes. He also got his political licks in during a long introductory statement – no surprise, since his latest album, a response to a slur Donald Trump used during the 2016 campaign, is called Bad Hombre.

Simpático with the repertoire: Venezuela-born Gustavo Dudamel.
(Nohely Oliveros, FidelioArts.com)

When Gustavo Dudamel and the full LA Phil slipped into Disney Hall on Oct. 12, only then did we start to get the real fiesta flavor of the CDMX festival. All three orchestral works Dudamel led in the first third of the concert were colorful, driving, percussive showpieces – and Gustavo could make them shake and move.

Javier Álvarez’s Metro Chabacano (1988) exists in several versions, the best-known of which is a string quartet arrangement for the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. What we heard that night was an unrecorded big-orchestra arrangement that Álvarez says he made only two years ago – and it flamboyantly transforms the piece without losing its minimalist underpinning.

Enrico Chapela’s Ínguesu (2003) is a tone poem about a soccer match, with depictions of the athletes assigned to different sections of the orchestra and not without some humor. Dudamel got a chance to blow a referee’s whistle and toss a bass trombonist representing a fouling Brazilian goalie out of the hall. The piece often roils and boils like a raucous percussive machine (think Revueltas’ Sensemayá).

Gabriela Ortiz’s ‘Téenek’ was a world premiere. (gabrielaortiz.com)

Gabriela Ortiz’s Téenek – Invenciones de territorio (a world-premiere LA Phil commission) continued the populist streak, laced with stretches of percolating complex rhythms driven by maracas, clavés, and bongos while leaving some room for contemplation. It got hotter and hotter as it barreled down the stretch, with Dudamel driving his players on.

Natalia Lafourcade is a superstar singer/songwriter in Mexico, and one could hear why; she has a clear pop voice that bloomed into cool vocalises high in her range. She also had the good sense to have Lev Ljova and Mario Santos decorate her songs with unusually intelligent, warm, complex, emotionally ambiguous symphonic arrangements for Dudamel and the LA Phil. Usually, pop singers moonlighting in front of symphony orchestras are backed by superfluous charts in which highly trained classical musicians are relegated to playing “footballs” (whole notes), but not this time.

Furthermore, the balance between Lafourcade’s five-piece backup band and the huge orchestra were perfectly gauged; we were mostly hearing the natural acoustic sound of the hall. The sold-out house went bonkers, both for the orchestral portions and for Lafourcade’s closing set with just her backup band.

The populist spirit of Mexican music dominated the above program, and presumably also the one on Oct. 15, when Dudamel and the LA Phil played four of Arturo Márquez’s nine Cuba-by-way-of-Veracruz Danzónes and backed the long-established, sometimes-experimental rock band Café Tacvba.

All of which set up the festival’s concluding concert Oct. 17, “New Music From Mexico”— a Green Umbrella event — as perhaps an ivory-tower response to the earthier, splashier, more tourist-friendly Mexican music the LA Phil played previously. All five pieces on the program were LA Phil-commissioned world premieres by five worldly Mexican composers of ages ranging from 33 to 46, and only one work – composer/singer Diana Syrse’s Connected Identities – had any ingredients that hinted at nationalistic flavor.

Édgar Guzmán’s ‘Phantasy on a’ launched a Green Umbrella concert.
(©Erika Harrsch)

Édgar Guzmán’s Phantasy on a, for brass quintet and percussion, launched the evening with a loud dissonant blast followed by guttural noises and aleatoric-sounding passages, staying pretty much in a confrontational mood until extinguished by the ping of a triangle.

Then Carlos Miguel Prieto, music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional México and the Louisiana Philharmonic (he’s also the son of the noted cellist Carlos Prieto), took the LA Phil New Music Group through Felipe Waller’s Echo Chamber Chronicles, which is supposed to be a commentary on the tendency of digital media to block out different or dissenting opinions from one’s own feed. The name of the piece says it all: the chamber orchestra plays different flourishes and patterns that are then echoed and restated into the ground. As a result, nothing really develops in the process — and that’s probably the point. So on those grounds, the piece is a success.

A string quartet from the Phil energetically played Alejandro Castaños’ Puntos de inflexión — busy bursts of rapid bowing separated by various extended techniques, concluding on a good-old-fashioned single tonic note the way Villa-Lobos liked to end things. Prieto and the New Music Group returned for Iván Naranjo’s spatially organized to what for ensembles, which consisted entirely of a gradual crescendo starting at the threshold of audibility for the novel setup of chamber orchestra, quartet (contrabassoon, trombone, two basses) and trio (E-flat clarinet, harp, percussion). The landscape became more mottled and complex — and more interesting — as the crescendo developed. Both pieces came with abstruse program notes by the composers that can be easily disregarded, given what I heard.

Diana Syrse, one of five young Mexican composers commissioned.
(Forwart Agency)

Diana Syrse’s Connected Identities was the longest (20 minutes and change), most theatrical, most symphonic-sounding, and probably most approachable piece of the batch. It’s a three-part cantata for a charismatic singer (Syrse) prowling like a jaguar around the stage, portraying a Mexican woman who immerses herself in other cultures and finds her identity shattered into fragments. The first part of the libretto is written entirely in Mayan, the second part in five other languages, the third in English and Spanish. The opening is striking, with its rolling subterranean bass drum; there are huge Wagnerian crescendos, pre-recorded electronic babble; and in Part Three a stretch of percussive rhythm that taps into the grooves heard earlier in the festival.

The line on this concert, then, is that there is no line; it seems as pointless to pin down and categorize the avant-garde from Mexico as it would be for the avant-garde from so many countries these days. And if there was a progression to be found in all of CDMX, it would be like starting from beyond Mexico’s borders with the jazzer Sanchez, then delving deeply into the national identity, and finally emerging as a member of the international music community.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

Date posted: October 22, 2017

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