Mexican History Plays Out Somewhat Awkwardly in Grant Park Concert

July 09, 2010

A sharper focus on the music and a better sense of organization would have made these points more clearly, and the evening more coherent, with or without a rainstorm.

There was a lot going on in the complex torrent of events of the Mexican War of Independence, ignited in 1810, and the Mexican Revolution, which began a century later.

There was a lot going on, too, in the Grant Park Music Festival's salute Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion to the combined bicentennial and centennial of those towering events in Mexico's history. Director Henry Godinez from the Goodman Theatre attempted to select from these events and squeeze them all into an evening-length theatrical narration combined with orchestral excerpts from five different Latin nations.

And there was a lot going on at the park itself, as rain first teased the medium-sized crowd and then started to fall hard with additional rivulets coming down on concertgoers under the metallic curls of the Pritzker Pavilion.

Ushers had been instructed not to let patrons move to empty seats "while music is playing," which meant that the very people brave enough to try waiting out the rain were forced to stand in the aisles getting soaked. Memo to Grant Park administrators: When it rains, let people move forward in the seating area.

Godinez, curator of the Goodman's annual Latino Theatre Festival, worked with colleague Jessica Mills and undergraduate students at Northwestern University to mine Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's massive, swirling 1982-86 three-volume Memoria del Fuego ("Memory of Fire") for threads of regional stories about slavery, subjugation of native peoples, the rise to power of the Roman Catholic Church, the mixed oppression and adoration of women and the cycle of revolt and setback for the poor.

Peruvian-born guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth (Texas) Symphony Orchestra, pulled together accompanying works from major 20th century figures such as Mexico's Silvestre Revueltas, Argentina's Alberto Ginastera, Colombia's Adolfo Mejia and Chile's Enrique Soro, as well as from three rising composers born in the 1970s: Arturo Rodriguez of Mexico, the Finnish-trained Peruvian Jimmy Lopez (whose work has been played at Orchestra Hall) and another Chilean, the politically focused Sebastian Errazuriz.

If this sounds like too much to take in, it usually was, despite beautiful playing by the Grant Park Orchestra and sharp and idiomatic musical leadership from Harth-Bedoya. Ginastera and Revueltas are beloved pioneers, and Lopez, 32, is one of the most interesting young composers anywhere today. But it was never clear when one piece began and one ended, and whether we were hearing excerpts or whole pieces.

At other times, hugely intriguing works such as Errazuriz's 2003 "La Caravana" were played under confusing narration -- in this case an excerpt from Galeano about a breakaway revolutionary movement of black slaves -- in 17th century Brazil!

Yes, this history is greatly important, and even Galeano's massive magic-realist opus can't contain it all. But for a concert, a sharper focus on the music and a better sense of organization would have made these points more clearly, and the evening more coherent, with or without a rainstorm.

Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times