Mexican orchestra serves up a colorful feast of Latin music at Kravis

By David Fleshler

Carlos Miguel Prieto conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

The Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería, a fine ensemble based in Mexico City, put more percussionists on stage at the Kravis Center Monday evening than many orchestras field first violinists.

Their services turned out to be essential for the program of Latin American music which relied more on percussion, brass and rhythmic vigor than on the string-dominated style of the typical European symphony.

The program consisted of works of Mexican composers, living and dead, as well as the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero performing her own concerto. This was all a refreshing change from the predictable fare offered by most visiting orchestras, whose programming leans heavily on the same classics by Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms and the rest.

The ensemble’s conductor, Carlos Miguel Prieto, gave brief descriptions and demonstrations of some of the evening’s exotic percussion instruments, some variants of familiar instruments such as xylophone or bass drum, others with bizarre components such as deer hooves and butterfly cocoons.

The orchestra itself was highly skilled, playing with taut ensemble precision, a big string sound and the clear articulation that was essential in these rhythmically intricate works. Based in Mexico City, the orchestra takes its name from the city’s Palacio de Minería, or Hall of Mining, the historic building where it was founded.

The concert opened with Kauyumari by the contemporary Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz. This richly colored tone poem was inspired by a belief of the Huichol people of Mexico in a blue deer that serves as a spiritual guide on a journey assisted by peyote.

A stark sense of mystery and anticipation arose in the quiet first moments, assisted by the calls of solo trumpets posted in theater boxes above the stage. Shimmering strings warmed the atmosphere, and as other instruments joined in, the tone went from eerie to jubilant. Using repetitive figures that were constantly varied, the work just started to seem like it was going on too long when it entered a long crescendo and ended with a bang.

The most exotic percussion instruments showed up in the Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia India,” by the eminent 20th century Mexican composer Carlos Chávez. Drawing inspiration from native melodies of northern Mexico, the work was full of melody and drama.

It was fascinating how the bizarre percussion sounds, such as the sinister, buzzy rattle of one unique instrument, could so strongly color the melodies, and bring a new layer of depth and meaning to a pensive melody in the woodwinds.

The work was no percussion concerto, however, and the instruments were used mainly to flavor the music, not dominate it. Strings played with verve in the big melody toward the end, which came with a unique accompaniment of the percussion’s whirrs, buzzes, rattles and thumps.

Gabriela Montero came on stage to perform her own Piano Concerto No. 1, “Latin,” in which a solo part of Rachmaninoff-level flash propelled a work of melodic inventiveness and rhythmic drive.

With heavy dependence on percussion, brass and mid-20th century melodic inflections, the opening “Mambo” movement seemed reminiscent of Gershwin and Bernstein. Meditative melodic passages alternated with manic, hard-driving ones for a movement that was never dull.

In the Andante, she played a melancholy melody with the woodwinds over a cushion of strings, given depth by poignant dissonances. The melody build to a soaring anthem before subsiding. The last movement was a manic light-footed romp in which the demanding piano part required her to play constantly.

Montero is famous for her improvisations, an art familiar to Bach and Beethoven but that has been almost lost among classical performers today.

As an encore she requested suggestions from the audience for a tune on which to improvise and settled on the Mexican song Bésame Mucho (“Kiss Me a Lot”).

Opening with a passage of Chopinesque wistfulness, she built her improvisation impressively to a throbbing, clanging climax, giving it a musical architecture that was astonishing for a work made up on the spot. As a second encore, she brought three percussionists and a bass player to the front from a Latin-flavored performance of Mozart’s famous “Rondo alla Turka” from the Piano Sonata No. 11.

The program concluded with La noche de los Mayas (The Night of the Mayas) by Silvestre Revueltas, a Mexican violinist and composer who lived from 1899 to 1940. A suite assembled from his score for a 1939 film of the same name, it felt very much like movie music of its time, with Romantic melodies that gave the orchestra’s string section a chance to shine.

There were steamy, atmospheric passages that felt like a night in the jungle, a climactic finale with heroic brass playing and a long dramatic passage in which everyone set down their instruments except for–who else—the percussionists.

Conductor Prieto, a genial host who was clearly proud of his orchestra, unfurled a Mexican flag on stage and led the ensemble in two encores by Mexican composers, smoothly executed performances of Arturo Márquez’s sultry Danzón No. 2 and José Moncayo’s Huapongo.

The Kravis Center’s classical series continues December 17 with the violinist Itzhak Perlman leading an ensemble for a performance of traditional Jewish klezmer music.

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Tue Oct 31, 2023
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