Thursday, February 13, 2020

“The Americas” at Long Beach

The original "El Salón México" in Mexico City, as depicted in the 1948 movie of the same name.


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

Though a roster that confined itself to one composer from the United States and two from Mexico inevitably left out a considerable acreage of other “Americas,” Eckart Preu’s characteristically subtle and thoughtful program-building for his latest Long Beach Symphony concert otherwise yielded a rich mixture of ethnic and cultural, as well as purely musical, cross-currents.

Eckart Preu.
It was book-ended with two works by the chameleonic Aaron Copland: urban, Jewish, gay, intellectual, born and bred in Brooklyn, he nonetheless responded creatively to the widest range of influences, from various aspects of early 20th century Modernism, to the broader European symphonic tradition, to jazz and early American folk music, to Western landscapes and legends, and to the popular idioms of Mexico.

This latter was where we began, with his El Salón México, composed between 1932 and 1936. Though a work of exuberant gaiety, awash with whistleable tunes and fragments of tunes, it’s still a considerable test for orchestra and conductor, with changes of time-signature on virtually every page, sometimes from single measure to single measure. Its harmonies, tempi, and textures are just as ever-changing, with slamming, percussion-driven tuttis abruptly confronting brass fanfares, that in turn dissolve into instrumental solos.

The word “solo”, indeed, peppers the score, the first notable one being allotted to a trumpet, the part being marked "ad lib" and played in this performance with wonderful boozy loucheness by LBSO Principal Miles McAllister. But it’s almost invidious to pick out any one player, as the orchestra as a whole negotiated the work’s pitfalls with mountain goat-like surefootedness. Maestro Preu’s direction made plenty of elbow-room for expressive rubato, indeed in some earlier stretches the piece struck me as being as much about siesta-like relaxation as dancing energy, though it gathered up a fine head of steam for the ricocheting end.

Aaron Copland (standing) and Carlos Chávez.

The score’s title page bears the sub-title “Popular Type Dance Hall in Mexico City”, and the person who introduced Copland to the real-life dance hall “El Salón México” in 1932 was Carlos Chávez, the Mexican composer and conductor with whom he had become close friends after they met for the first time in New York in 1926. Each was an advocate for and conductor of the other’s works, Copland being particularly fond of Chávez’s 1935 Sinfonía india (Symphony No. 2), which he gave with various orchestras many times in later years.

The word “symphony” inevitably conjures up expectations of a lengthy, multi-movement creation, but Sinfonía india, the opening work in the second half of the LBSO program, is in a single movement of only about the same duration as the overture-like El Salón México. Though it bears the outline of a three-part, fast-slow-fast structure over its 12-minute span, Chávez’s inspiration essentially derives from the adoption, juxtaposition and manipulation of indigenous ("indian") melodies rather than any Western symphonic model.

If anything, the challenge to the orchestra here was even more formidable than in El Salón México. Here again were the constantly changing rhythms and time-signatures, sharp juxtapositions of textures with no warm cushions of orchestral homogeneity for anyone to hide in, and many prominent solos, but added to that a lyrical intensity that in the slow central section—based on an indelibly memorable Yaqui melody (shout-out to E-flat clarinetist Michael Grego for his memorable playing of its first appearance)— grows into an impassioned threnody, perhaps for vanishing native ways of life in threatened natural habitats.

Aztec musicians playing teponaztli
(foreground) and 
huéhuetl, both
called for in 
the Sinfonía india.
With all four percussionists beating out the complex accompanying rhythms on an array of instruments even more exotic and varied than Copland employs in his piece, the LBSO and Maestro Preu proudly soared with this climactic passage, like the splendor of a precipitous waterfall encountered in the Amazon jungle, and then just as excitingly navigated the rapids of Chávez’s poco a poco accelerando gradual into the obsessively driven final section of the symphony. This for me was the highlight of the concert.

There couldn’t have been a greater contrast than the soft, slow opening strains of Appalachian Spring, in the concert suite that Copland reworked the following year, for a smallish orchestra, from his 1944 13-instrument “ballet for Martha” (Graham). To my ears Preu brought out a little more prominently than usual the discreet dissonances that permeate this familiar score, like threads of iron ore beneath the landscape of rural middle Americana to which Copland the chameleon here turns his attention.

In the mood of cultural and musical cross-references, it struck me too how similar in its unfolding intervals and overall sensibility is the Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” with which Copland memorably climaxes Appalachian Spring, to the Yaqui melody that permeates the central section of Chávez’s Sinfonía india, even down to the way both composers repeat them again and again with imaginatively varied and increasingly full instrumentation.

Arturo Márquez.
The other work in the program, filling the familiar concerto location as the major portion of the first half, was Máscaras for harp and chamber orchestra (the LBSO strings appropriately reduced to 8-8-5-4-2), written in 1998-99 by the contemporary Mexican Arturo Márquez (b. 1950), with Moldovan-born Ina Zdorovetchi giving a sparklingly focused account of the solo part.

Ina Zdorovetchi.
In a broadly slow-fast-slow-fast layout, each of its four movements represents a “mask” that adumbrates an aspect of Mexican culture—socio-political with the first, Máscara Flor (Mask Flower) and fourth, La Pasión según Marcos (the Passion according to Marcos), more generally musical and cultural with the second, Máscara Son (Mask sound), and third, La Pasión según San Juan de Letrán (The Passion according to San Juan de Letrán)

For me the concerto, though beautiful and engaging throughout, and lovingly performed by all concerned, seemed too slight to carry the burdens of the programs, particularly for those for the outer movements (too elaborate to spell out here). Best therefore, to disregard them and appreciate the work for what it was, as the audience clearly did. I did retain a niggle, though, that there are other concerted works by composers from both sides of the many borders of our conjoined continents more substantial and deserving to occupy a 25-minute slot in a concert representing “The Americas.” 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, February 8, 2020, 8 p.m.
Images: El Salón México: Mexico City website; Eckart Preu: Long Beach Post; Copland and Chávez: St. Olaf College; Aztec instruments: Wikipedia; Márquez: Paladino Media; Ina Zdorovetchi: artist website;

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