Dazzling Sounds from South of the Border


CDMX: New Music from Mexico – Guzmán, Waller, Castaños, Naranjo, Syrse: LA Phil New Music Group / Carlos Miguel Prieto (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 17.10.2017. (DLD)

Guzmán – Phantasy on a
Waller – Echo Chamber Chronicles
Castaños – Puntos de inflexión
Naranjo – to what
Syrse – Connected Identities (Identidades Conectadas)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose 2017-2018 concert season began with an orgy of Mozart over nine concerts, made an abrupt left turn, with one of the most interesting, eclectic and varied series in memory. CDMX, the newly established name-abbreviation for Mexico City, came to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for a series of concerts celebrating the scope and range of new music from that great megalopolis.

CDMX is part of ‘Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA’, a Getty Institute initiative taking place from September 2017 to January 2018 across Southern California in over 60 cultural institutions. The show, unparalleled in its depth and breadth, has gained the attention of artists, scholars, advocates and appreciators from around the world. And justifiably so: it is surely among the broadest and most eclectic art exhibitions that I’ve experienced.

The Philharmonic program began with Édgar Guzmán’s Phantasy on a, scored for an oddly configured ensemble of 2 trumpets, French horn, three trombones (including a bass trombone) and a percussionist who presided over a large collection of drums and percussives in the rear of the stage. The piece included brilliant brass and drum fanfare-like figures, alternating with the sound of pure air coursing through the wind instruments; and a horn player who patted her instrument like a mother trying to burp a baby, open fifths fading into textures of chaos. Much of the soundscape was dark and ominous, but it was perhaps the percussionist who stole the show with a series of moans, cries, sighs and whispers. Composer Guzman quotes the illustrious French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his program note: ‘[from elsewhere], the emergence of this object we call “a”, the object no doubt of desire…in a complex which we call the phantasy’. This axiomatic assertion surely fits with the famous Lacan ‘short session’, but Guzmán’s Phantasy is long enough to express a wondrous and breathtaking display of harmonic sounds.

Echo Chamber Chronicles by Juan Felipe Waller is described by the composer as a place where sound reverberations might not be as straightforward as normally expected. Here is a space where sound can be deformed and distorted by ‘accidental resonance’. Likening this aural phenomenon to media discourse, Waller has created a composition with distortion in a musical context, similar to that which can happen to words.

I can’t claim that I understood all that happened in Waller’s piece: assimilating contemporary sound combinations and structures while inferring meaning and context in a first-time hearing can be tough. What I did hear was a beautiful, color-laden musical texture and flow, conducted elegantly by Carlos Miguel Prieto, the music director of the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico, and champion of Latin American art music and highly coherent musical ideas that follow a path towards eventual distortion – but, nonetheless, a beautiful distortion! What I would have given for a score in my lap.

Following intermission, the program continued with the string quartet Puntos de Infleción by composer Alejandro Castaños in its world premiere. The words that the composer found to describe his piece – ‘turning points’, ‘clear cuts and broken narratives’, ‘friction, filtering, synthesis and sudden shifts of highly contrasting material’ – were all in evidence, as was virtuosic playing of the highest order, distinctly differing formal sections, a cadenza-like center, an echo of earlier composers (I heard a strong presence of the ghost of Shostakovich), clarity of structure and a climactic Presto of breathtaking intensity. I would guess that the applause that immediately followed the close of the quartet was in equal parts for composer and performers.

The composition for ensembles that followed, to what by Iván Naranjo, was largely a study in textures. This ensemble was larger that its predecessors and yet divided into smaller sound units on stage. There were irregularities in the usual positioning of the players, which underscored its chamber-music aspect. Divisions in the music occurred in the play of textures, convergence and retreat, small and distinct pairings of instruments, and somewhat curious and unconventional sonic superimpositions (e.g. ‘grainy versus integrated’). Indeed, the piece could have been titled ‘Textures’, with its singular, overlapping, laid-over and spatial organization, led by individual groups within the ensemble. The piece was rich in wonderfully mixed sounds and colors, but it sometimes seemed to lose a coherent musical thread and direction. Or I lost the thread: a second and third listening may be just what the composer ordered.

The final piece on the program was the biggest, loudest and brashest: Diana Syrse’s Connected Identities. Three inter-linked sections – the ‘connected identities’ – propelled this theatrical work. The narrative, closely defined by a composer who seemed fearless in her compositional effort, embraced the philosophical, musical, literary and more prosaic elements. This was drama in its most direct sense.

The composer herself was the vocal soloist and narrator of this complex trilogy: ‘Nahual’, in which a woman moves between two greatly differing cultures, is written in Mayan, based on the Lacandón song of the Jaguar; ‘The Tower of Babel’, a dramatic search for identity; and ‘The Aleph’, an impressionistic, visionary version of the most famous Borges short story. All the narratives have been re-imagined and tailored by the composer/interpreter into a single stage piece.

It is an impressive piece of work with great dramatic intensity and emotional peaks and valleys, but it feels like a ‘work-in-progress’. From time to time, dramatic coherence and musical direction were muddled or lost. But that said, the vision is potent and the determination of this young woman is incredible. The orchestral writing is strong and secure but might benefit from greater plasticity and contrast. Nevertheless, the sheer brute talent of the composer (and star) is bracing, and I’m certain that reworking, cutting and adding, and refinement could produce a major work. All the elements are there.

Connected Identities was the most complex undertaking of the five pieces performed. Textures might use more variation. Transitions might be lengthened or in some cases shortened, and modal properties clarified. The composer herself sang the role of the three narrator/identities. Her creation was more than capably supported by the largest orchestral entity of the evening, surely and deftly lead by conductor Prieto.

Finally, a word about the pre-concert event. The five composers were offered equal opportunity to speak on their creations by the knowledgeable and personable Veronika Krauses, a composer herself, whose fine and articulate work has been performed in a variety of venues. Her questions were serious and probing, and meant to give these composers a platform to express themselves. The on-stage discussion went far to set the context for the performances of music heard for the first time in concert settings, and to frame the reference points in these pieces with meaningful context. Krauses read the composers well and, in doing so, elicited answers that were enlightening, which added context and depth to the performance. The smallest vein of insight in modern music can be a bounty. Krauses deserves her own set of bravas: listening to her smart, gentle queries was its own pleasure.

Douglas Dutton

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