Grant Park Orchestra Provides Rousing If Chaotic Latin Program On Rainy Night

July 08, 2010

The evening got off to a rousing start with Arturo Rodriguez's Mosaico Mexicano, full of sparkling brass and infectious, dancing rhythms. As tales of gruesome massacres unfolded, the orchestra groaned with the agony of a massive, wounded beast.

Collaboration is the name of the game in the arts these days, and the Grant Park Music Festival has become a player at the Grandmaster level. In recent seasons the Grant Park Orchestra has made music with the indie rock band The Decembrists and provided the live soundtrack for a Bollywood cinema spectacular.

On Wednesday night in its home in Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, the music festival teamed up with a Chicago Loop neighbor, the Goodman Theatre, for an evening of music and spoken word. It was one of those nights when thunder, lightning, and a persistent downpour sent the audience scurrying for cover. But guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, a quintet of actors and the orchestra were unfazed, and the two-hour program based on a famous trilogy of Latin American history by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano unfolded as planned.

The program was shaped by Henry Godinez, resident artistic associate at Goodman and curator of its Latino Theatre Festival, which runs through July 25. The focus was Mexico, which is celebrating two anniversaries this year—the 200th anniversary of Mexican Independence and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.

Worked out with the help of Jessica Mills and students in a Northwestern University theater class, Godinez put together a fast-paced script that took us through centuries of revolution in Latin America. The charismatic actors—Charin Alvarez, Edward Torres, Tanya Saracho, Juan Francisco Villa and Godinez—stood in front of the orchestra, reading their lines from scripts held by music stands. At times the Grant Park Orchestra provided background music for their words; at other times the actors or the orchestra held the stage alone. Music for the evening ranged from pieces by young composers living in Mexico, Peru and Chile to such established masters as Argentina’s Alberto Ginastera and Mexico’s Silvestre Revueltas.

Drawn from Galeano’s 1986 trilogy, Memoria del Fuego (Memory of Fire), the text—mostly English with snatches of Spanish–was fast-paced and full of arresting images. As they took turns telling the story in short, urgent bursts, the actors created a verbal mosaic of Latin American life and belief. There were vivid vignettes of Aztec warriors, a whimsically languorous Adam and Eve and an early 19th century padre defiantly reading the banned works by French free thinkers.

The orchestra was an equally passionate partner in the drama. The evening got off to a rousing start with Arturo Rodriguez’s Mosaico Mexicano, full of sparkling brass and infectious, dancing rhythms. As tales of gruesome massacres unfolded, the orchestra groaned with the agony of a massive, wounded beast. In the closing scenes, selections from Revueltas’ La Noche de los Mayas combined propulsive energy and noble, full-throated melody.

Heard together, however, the combination of words and music was often too much of a good thing. For listeners not up on their Latin America history, the barrage of unfamiliar names and dates became overwhelming. For music lovers who want to know exactly what they’re listening to, it was often unclear when one piece ended and another began. The panorama was vast and the pace exciting, but sometimes we didn’t know what we were seeing or hearing.

For listeners more willing to go with the flow, however, the program was exhilarating. Judging by the applause from the soggy but enthusiastic audience, they were in the majority.

Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Classical Review