LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first weekend of performances in the California Festival, a statewide series of concerts celebrating largely Pan-American programs of contemporary music and premieres that runs to Nov. 19, got off to a good start at Walt Disney Concert Hall with complimentary drinks offered in the third floor outdoor garden. A welcoming sign read: “Sponsored By Mexico.”
Indeed, Mexican composers made a big impact at the Nov. 10 concert, in which Gustavo Dudamel led the orchestra in works by Roberto Sierra, Tania León, Arturo Márquez, Silvana Estrada, and Gabriela Ortiz, curator of the Phil’s Pan-American Music Initiative.
To be sure, Puerto Rican composer Sierra’s hyper Alegría (1996) provided an invigorating, exuberant curtain-raiser, with Dudamel and the orchestra racing through the brassy, percussive score with bracing energy. Next came Cuban-American León’s 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning Stride (2019), which became a bit diffuse as Dudamel perhaps too carefully tried to convey the composer’s distinct instrumental colors. The sonic effects ranged from quiet poignancy in the strings and muted trumpets to short fanfares and polyrhythmic percussion. The concluding chimes sounded like a benison.
In Márquez’s Danzón No. 2 (1994), the orchestra’s sultry richness, starting with Burt Hara’s warm clarinet solo, enhanced what has become a signature piece for Dudamel, who clearly revels in what the composer called “the embrace between music and dance.”
Between pieces, Dudamel spoke of finding “a place where we can be together,” a safe space where we can celebrate the beauty and joy of music. The challenge in this concert — the theme was “Canto en resistencia” (“song of resistance”) — was keeping the divisiveness of current politics at bay.
Luckily, in León’s piece, inspired by Susan B. Anthony’s now-distant fight for the 19th Amendment, the focus remained on communicating a feeling for Anthony’s history-changing persistence. “I imagined her way of not taking ‘no’ for an answer,” León wrote in the program note.
Similarly, after intermission, Ortiz’s Seis piezas a Violeta, originally written in 2002 as a quintet for piano and string quartet, remained specific, personal, and, consequently, deeply moving. Partly conceived as a tribute to Chilean composer and singer-songwriter Violeta Parra, the Six Pieces, in an arrangement for string orchestra, was the night’s sole premiere.
Ortiz’s piano-driven score, with principal Joanne Pearce Martin situated among the Phil’s strings, looked back to Bartók’s darker textured folkloric influence and forward to Parra’s lyrical, politically engaged oeuvre. Incidentally, Ortiz’s parents were both folk musicians, and she has cited Bartók as both her most profound early exposure to 20th-century music and the inspiration for her career as a composer.
Throughout the 20-minute score, Dudamel remained attentive to Ortiz’s often-sharp rhythms, sustaining a Bartókian nachtmusik mood. The focused blend of string timbres became haunting in the third section, “Ritmo Genésico,” and touching in the following “Canto del Angelito.”
The concert concluded with a surprisingly short set of three songs by featured singer-songwriter Estrada. Perplexingly, there were no lyrics in the program booklet and no supertitles.
Estrada, a 2023 Grammy nominee in the Global Music category, held the stage with confidence, singing (in true Susan B. Anthony fashion) “no one shuts us up anymore/nothing contains us anymore” in “Si Me Matan.” “Se Me Ocurre“ explored the transformative power of relationships. She concluded with a protest anthem by León Gieco, “Sólo le Pido a Dios,” about trying to fight through our indifference to injustice and suffering.
Estrada’s impassioned mezzo-soprano found some grit for Gieco’s anthem, but at times the large orchestra detracted from the overall effect by being epic where it needed to be intimate. Vocal clarity can be a problem in Disney Hall, so curtains were placed on either side of the organ loft. Closet-size speakers on the stage also compensated for the dicey Disney Hall acoustics for voice, allowing Estrada to stay above the orchestra.
Still, the somewhat pop-accessible set seemed more scaled to the Hollywood Bowl. Her enthusiastic fans shouted for an encore, and she returned holding the mike, but the orchestra abruptly got up, and the concert was over. However, she’ll be back in May at Disney Hall with American singer Cécile McLorin Salvant.