A rare foray into Mexican classical music

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Even in a Latin cultural milieu like Miami, rarely does one encounter the classical music of Mexico. Once in a great while, Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemaya is aired but even the celebrated Carlos Chavez is infrequently performed, let alone works by contemporary Mexican composers.

Props then to pianist Mia Vassilev (left) and cellist Javier Arias, aka the Orpheus Duo, for their concert of Mexican music for cello and piano presented Tuesday night at Gusman Concert Hall. The program, to be repeated Friday night at Florida International University, also served as Vassilev’s doctoral recital (in accompanying and chamber music), and offered a varied and bracing conspectus of Mexican classical works.

There is likely more going on in contemporary Mexican music circles than most people realize, since the two most intriguing works on the program were by living composers. Federico Ibarra (born 1946) has written in every genre including symphonies, ballets, chamber music, songs and opera. His Musica para Teatro III is a suite cast in five movements that are concise to the point of being epigrammatic. Ibarra’s style is angular and ironic, alternating jocular and sardonic elements and off-center dance rhythms—a south-of the-border Prokofiev—and his music was given a taut, biting performance by the Orpheus Duo.

Leonardo Coral, 46, was represented by his Cello Sonata. Coral’s lucid, highly focused music is spare yet atmospheric. In the opening section, Espejos s de Luna y Viento (reflection of the moon and the wind), an unsettled fragile lyricism is set against hard-edged percussive writing. The Lamento offers a nostalgic cello solo that grows more impassioned backed by a spectral piano accompaniment. The finale has the strongest native element, a kind of folk dance on mescaline, jagged and driven with fleeting rememberance of the lyric elements. Both musicians were clearly inspired by Coral’s sonata, which receive the finest advocacy of the evening.

There’s nothing particularly nationalistic about the Cello Sonata of Manuel M. Ponce (1882-1945), written in a traditional European style. Few would guess the first three movements came from Mexican origins, though the sonata displays the well-crafted professionalism for which Ponce was known, with a rhapsodic opening movement, scherzo-like section, and lovely, introspective Arietta. The brilliant final Allegro burlesco has more recognizably Latin vitality, but the long opening movement tends to sprawl.

The celebrate Chavez, Aaron Copland’s friend and closest colleague, was represented with his songful Madrigal, the cello line given ample yearning by Arias. The Mexican-born cellist’s father Emmanuel Arias y Luna was represented with his Dos Piezas, in which the brilliance and rhythmic energy of the cancion and jarabe offered the most direct populist folk flavor.

Arias’ intonation could have been more consistently focused, but the Mexican-born cellist of the Amernet Quartet showed clear affection and an idiomatic feel for the music. Vassilev sounded a bit cautious in sections that required more unbridled dynamism, but her playing was consistently vital and polished, with a nuanced expressive palette.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday at Florida International University’s Wertheim Performing Arts Center, 11200 SW 8th St. in Miami. Admission is free.

Posted in concert review, Performances

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Wed Sep 10, 2008
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