Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra serve up a program of worthy South American music

June 25, 2011

by Bryant Manning, Chicago Classical Review

Arriving from all corners of the world, Chicago’s tourists invariably flock to Millennium Park, and the Grant Park Music Festival has successfully catered to this global exchange. Even in a traditionally Western European-dominated art form—where some diversity “inclusion” programs can feel like half-hearted attempts at musical affirmative action—the worldly programming at the Pritzker Pavilion reliably produces inspired results.

Maestro Carlos Kalmar’s exacting artistic standards were on display Friday night for a South American program full of interesting and lesser known works. Even with a little summer fluff sprinkled in, a substantive night of Latin music offset another overcast evening off the Chicago lakefront.

For well over a decade now, the Chicago-based composer Elbio Barilari has unofficially served as our area’s liaison for Latin music, and he can be heard on WFMT’s Fiesta each Sunday when he explores all things south of the border. Originally composed as a sextet, his Canyengue (2005) was expanded for Grant Park and received loving treatment from the Grant Park Orchestra on Friday night. Strangely, this brief tango-tinged opus evoked in part the bygone era of 80s TV drama theme music (Dallas anyone?) with its charmingly hyper and virile string work. There is also a strong trace of cultural reverence in the work, and Kalmar said afterwards that the music reminded him of his youth (Both he and Barilari were born in Uruguay in the 1950s.)

In a similar nostalgic refrain, the Venezuelan composer Inocente Carreno wrote about his birthplace on the island of Margarita for his evocatively scenic Margaritena (1954). Based on several songs of his childhood (Margarita is a Tear and Tiguitiguitos), the piece is framed by principal Jonathan Boen’s wistful horn solos and negotiates fluidly between tropic tranquility and militaristic nationalism. To its credit, the orchestra’s full range of sound would have almost been too much had the concert been indoors.

If rhythm and vitality are hallmarks of Latin symphonic music, Kalmar did everything except explicitly apologize for presenting Heitor Villa-Lobos’ lower-energy symphonic poem, Uirapuru (1917). This Stravinskian tribute to the bird of the Amazon rain forest comes to life through various imitative stylings on flute, piccolo and soprano sax. The Brazilian composer has what you might call the closest sensibility to a European sound, but this music stays firmly rooted in the spirit of his native soil.

The evening’s most musically rich offering came from Mexican great, Carlos Chavez. The suite from his ballet Horse-Power (1926) is socially conscious music that celebrates the proletariat and industrial relations between North and South America. Here the mechanized and repetitive passages could almost have become the official soundtrack for Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis, which was released just a year later. With its complex rhythms and flirtations with atonality, this daring music aptly embodied the roaring and experimental 20s.

Ginastera’s Commentaries on Themes of Pablo Casals (1976) proved a loving tribute to the Catalonian cellist, festively filled out with Spanish dances (sardanas) and nocturnal romances.