Profound Sounds from Down Mexico Way

August 02, 2010

The program's century-long survey ranged broadly from pleasing nationalism to plucky modernism, and the Grant Park Orchestra and guest conductor Enrique Barrios were energized partners on the Pritzker pavilion stage.

Without Aaron Copland's advocacy, it's difficult to imagine how Mexican classical music would have tapped into our country's conscience. In his letters, the Brooklyn-born composer saw Mexico as a musical fantasyland sitting on thousands of years of civilization, and through his generosity he constantly raised an awareness that "American" music existed well beyond the borders of these 50 states. After his first visit in 1932, he wrote that "Mexico offers something fresh and pure and wholesome -- a quality which is deeply unconventionalized."

Copland might as well have been describing the all-Mexican music program Saturday night in Millennium Park, a fresh assortment of sounds celebrating the country's important political anniversaries. The program's century-long survey ranged broadly from pleasing nationalism to plucky modernism, and the Grant Park Orchestra and guest conductor Enrique Barrios were energized partners on the Pritzker pavilion stage. If there are preconceived notions that Mexican symphonic music is colorful, affirmative and rhythmically eccentric, then each of these expectations was met with aplomb by Barrios' direction.

Copland -- dead 20 years this December -- was certainly felt in spirit. In its Grant Park debut, Humberto Hernandez-Medrano's "1962: Homenaje a Copland" (2007) made for a bracing and almost harrowing tribute to the Brooklyner. Carlos Chavez, one of Copland's best friends, was represented by his popular Sinfonia India (Symphony No. 2), a one-movement work that liberally incorporates the influences of native Indian music and culture. This fascinated Copland to no end. "I must be something of an Indian myself," he said, "or how else explain the sympathetic chord it awakens in me." Chavez's main artistic rival Silvestro Revueltas -- who is arguably Mexico's greatest and most unique musical voice -- wrote with a dutiful sense of purpose in his loving homage to the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1937). Scored for chamber orchestra, the music provokes an uncannily hypnotic feeling akin to a first hearing of Bernard Herrmann's score to "Vertigo."

A little over an hour long, this concert was surely a treat for the large and diverse crowd that scattered on the Great Lawn. It was easy to be happily transported southward in Samuel Zyman's uber-Latin "Encuentros" (1992) and Arturo Marquez's tuneful Danzon No. 2, now one of Latin America's most frequently performed works. The program began in a similar vein, with Jose Pablo Moncayo's lively dance number "Huapango" setting a festive tone.

And for those who have vacationed in the western state of Jalisco, Blas Galindo's "Mariachi Songs" was a brassy reminder of all that intimate music that rises from the area's street corners, restaurants and beaches.

Bryant Manning, Sun-Times