President Trump proudly extolled the virtues of western civilization in a speech he gave in Warsaw, Poland, in 2017, but colonization, which is one of its biggest and sometimes most virulent by-products continues to drive it, as it did in Libya and does now in Iraq and Syria — partition anyone ? And yet one of western civilization’s greatest inventions is the symphony orchestra which composers in previously colonized countries have bent to their own purposes. Enter the suddenly famous ninety-four piece Orchesta Filharmonica de Jalisco from Guadalajara, Mexico, which has survived the overthrow of the colonial French in 1867 and the Mexican Revolution which Emiliano Zapata led from 1900 until his murder in 1919. Its outcome was both political and cultural and that ferment helped produce artists like Rivera and Orozco who worked both inside and outside of western ” civilization “. And The OFJ, which has reportedly blossomed since 2014 under its French Canadian music director/conductor Marco Parisotto — www.marcoparisotto.com — has a repertoire which includes the classic German masters and just about everything in between, and beyond.
Parisotto and his band were clearly engaged here, and how could they not be with music of generally extraordinary quality? The Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) produced a string of vivid and very physical works in his short life, or as he wrote — “There is inside me a very peculiar understanding of nature. Everything is rhythm. That’s what music is to me. My rhythms are booming, dynamic, tactile, visual. I think in images that move dynamically. ” You get all that in conductor Erich Kleiber’s suite from Revueltas’ percussive score for Paul Strand and Fred Zinnemann’s film Redes (1935), which is direct, concise and expertly written for each choir, especially the lower strings with their primordial double bass sound which incarnates Garcia Lorca’s conviction that ” all that has dark sound has duende “. Revueltas’ Redes has that in spades, and it proves that you don’t have to get tied up in the Gordian 12-note knot to write powerfully “simple” music which was something that composers like my late friend Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), and Alex North (1910-1991 ) who studied with Revueltas in Mexico – see my work www.alexnorthmusic.com — were doing in the pre-minimalist 1930’s.
American composer Aaron Copland (1900- 1990 ) knew, admired, and wrote about Revueltas, but his evocation of a Mexico City dance hall in his El Saton Mexico (1936 ) is pretty weak tea next to Revueltas’ bracing cerveza. Sure it’s well-made, but the colors and rhythms don’t add up to much and it has almost zero duende. Even worse, it has the emerging ” official ” sound of Copland’s brand, which was not always a very interesting one. Still the orchestra made a strong case for it, though parts sounded far too loud, owing perhaps to Davies’ variable acoustics, or the sheer size and weight of the Guadalajarans. Copland’s Music for the Theater (1925) is a much stronger piece but wouldn’t have fit into this program’s www.mexam.org Mexican/American theme.
Arturo Marquez ( 1950 — ), who is one of the most performed of living Mexican composers, apparently abandoned doctrinaire modernism for a more audience-friendly style, in his eight Danzones (1994 ) which marry the Cuban ball room dance danzon with music from Veracruz, Mexico. Danzon No. 2,, which the OFJ played here, is made up of transparent, slowly shifting layers. It’s seductive — dance is so often about seduction — and was in this reading infinitely charming, first clarinet Jeslan Fernandez’s solo beautifully shaped and utterly clear.
The band re-grouped after the Marquez as the percussion group Tambuco — Ricardo Gallardo, Alfredo Bringas, Raul Tudon , Miguel Gonzalez — came on stage to give the North American premiere of Metal de Treboles by Mexican composer Javier Alvarez ( 1956 — ), which seemed hell bent on impressing one with its “originality ” but I heard Steve Reich-like hockets and threadbare modernist moves like passages of thick stacked-up harmonies to prove its “importance”, though there were patches of interest, like the overtones produced by Tambuco’s harmonica chords, and the colorful sounds produced by the proverbial percussion battery in the orchestra. It may have made a joyful noise but didn’t add up to much despite the devoted and enthusiastic playing of Tambuco and the OFJ. It was big and showy alright, but also too long.
George Gershwin (1896-1937 ) may be one of America’s most overrated composers, but at least his schooling in the popular song and theatre forced him to write tight, and the Catfish Row Suite from his deservedly successful African American folk opera Porgy and Bess ( 1935 ) has the virtues of melodic charm big time. Programming it at summer may be a terrible cliche but who can kvetch with playing this fine? The sound throughout was warm and pliable with a spectacularly sinewy and urgent Fugue. Concert mistress Angelica Olivo’s sleek-as-silk solo on “Summertime” amazed, and the string sound, perhaps because Parisotto has been a violinist, sounded like the best string playing this side of Leopold Stokowski.
Parisotto and the OFJ gave three encores of which the best was a burn-down-the-house reading of the classic Huapango (1941 ) by the great Mexican composer Jose Pablo Moncayo ( 1912-1958 ). But then each piece got readings of enormous clarity, power, and depth. This is what happens when an orchestra really listens and plays as one. I only wish that the OFJ had played a full Mexican program as they often do in their home town. It’s a great repertoire and we need to hear a lot more of it on this side of our mutual border.
END 16-29.vii.17 C 2017 MICHAEL MCDONAGH