Orchestral Music Review Print



UNC-Greensboro Symphony: Driving Latin Rhythms

February 24, 2002 - Greensboro, NC:


The February 24 Aycock Auditorium concert of the UNC-Greensboro Symphony Orchestra was an extraordinary achievement from several points of view. As part of the University's plan to expand exposure to world cultures, this was the first event in a campus-wide multi-discipline Latin American Festival. To honor the event, Mexico dispatched a vice-consul from its Raleigh Consulate to speak - at length - about the significance of the event. I could not help but notice that, after an initial sentence or two about the importance of Latin American culture, the rest of his speech was entirely about Mexico. UNCG SO Music Director Robert Gutter introduced the evening's guest conductor, Jorge Perez Gomez, as a fellow conducting student of Franco Ferrara at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy. His restrained and economical gestures were remarkable considering the uncommon amount and variety of rhythms and complex cross rhythms that dominated all the works played.

Maestro Gomez, Director of Orchestral Activities at the University of New Mexico, managed to select a cornucopia-like program that was representative of the key works and styles of leading 20th Century South and Latin American composers Alberto Ginastera (Argentina), Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chavez (both from Mexico), and the latter's pupil, Jose Pablo Moncayo. I had heard Ginastera's Suite from the Ballet Estancia (1941) in concert twice, most recently during a GSO concert directed by Stuart Malina. Revueltas's classic Sensemayà (1938) and Chavez's Symphonia India (1935) I had known only from off-air cassettes of orchestral broadcasts made decades ago when WUNC carried recorded concerts by major orchestras every week. I had been turned off by what seemed to be a wall of driving rhythms involving virtually the full orchestra plus extra and unusual percussion instruments. Those recordings failed to convey the full complexity that seeing and hearing the performances live revealed.

The Malambo, a gaucho dance, has a driving rhythm that figures throughout the scenes of Ginastera's ballet and is especially prominent in the first movement of the Suite, Los Trabajadores agricolas ("The Farm Laborers"). From a driving wave involving the whole orchestra, it eventually divides into more complex and interesting sections within the ensemble. The subject of the ballet is an Argentine version of Copland's Rodeo in which a city boy becomes a gaucho and eventually wins the ranch owner's daughter. After a section with contrasted woodwinds and strings it ends with multiple percussion. "Danza del trigo" ("Wheat Dance") is lyrical, beginning with delicate pizzicato strings and lovely solos for horn followed by flute and an extensive part for an orchestral piano. The blended sounds of a pair of horns leads to a gently flowing string section, ending with a sweet violin solo, played at UNCG by concertmaster Dan Skidmore. Five marvelously blended horns opened "Los Peones de hacienda" (The Cattlemen) with another insistent rhythmic figure. The full brass section and then the rest of the orchestra joined in, and the piece ended with the timpani, bass drum and snares dominant. Full percussion and shrill massed flutes against pizzicato strings launched "Danza final (Malambo)," which quickly divided into complex patterns of cross rhythms and ended with a massive, hammering beat.

Extra woodwinds were added for Revueltas's Sensemayà (1938), which is characterized by steady drumbeats in a pulsing pattern. David Palmer's tuba solo was memorable as was a slashing string figure and some fabulous muted brass playing by horns, trumpets and trombones. According to the too brief program notes, "in 1937, after reading a poem ('Sensemayà' or 'Chant for Killing a Snake,' by Guillén) [the composer] set it as... a tone poem... (with) the main feature... the insistent repetition... transformed into a rhythmic cell in 7/8 time."

Considered by many as the dean of Mexican composers, Carlos Chavez, spent a lot of time composing and guest conducting in New York and other American cities. As a composer he was largely self taught and spent much time with both Copland and Varèse. A dancing figure dominated by woodwinds opens his Sinfonia India (1935). High piccolos shriek over percussion changing to a faster rhythm. A lovely episode for solo clarinet and percussion evokes a Copland-like landscape (without either the Marlboro Man or gauchos). Increasing percussion and extensive use of Indian rattles dominate the fast rhythms of the third section, punctuated by more shrill piccolos and flutes. Violas and cellos backing a solo oboe provided still more Copland-like flavor.

The two pieces played after intermission featured more traditional lyric string scoring and were more audience-friendly. Conductor Erich Kleiber arranged Revueltas's film score to Redes (1934), a documentary about Mexican fishermen, into a suite in three movements The program notes stated,"the influence of Stravinsky is clearly in evidence." A trumpet crescendo opens the work with a three-note figure. Fine solos were given by the clarinet, horn and cello. Varied rhythms and lilting melodies characterize Huapango, by Chavez's pupil Moncayo. It opened with pizzicato strings joined by a short figure played by the horns. The catchy beat of Veracruz dance music is immediately attractive. Cellos evoke the strumming of guitars and there is an engaging oboe melody.

In the course of these works, significant orchestral solos were played byconcertmaster Dan Skidmore, principal cellist Jack Turner, principal flute Bethany Snyder, principal oboe Amanda English, Principal clarinet Kevin Erixson, co-principal Horns Michael Helman and Andy Downing, principal trumpet Michael Hengst and principal trombone Darin Achilles. The whole orchestra played at a level that regional orchestras weren't readily able to achieve in recent decades.