in: Reviews

February 21, 2016

It Certainly Rained in This New Spain

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In its second year of operation, Unitas Ensemble continues its mission to foster “…the appreciation of Latino- and Ibero-American music and culture … with captivating performances for ensembles of various sizes.” Did they ever deliver!

“Journey to the Tropics” inundated the crowd at Old South Church on Saturday afternoon with lively repertoire from Latin composers with Boston connections, whose compositions for the most part danced, smiled and looked back in sweet nostalgia to Piazzola, Gottschalk, and Vivaldi, though sometimes with a tinge of Marx or Lorca.

Artistic Director Lina Marcela Gonzalez wisely kept off to the side of tenor David Rivera, Concertmaster of the group Alina Czekala, harpist Maria Rindenello-Parker, flautist Michael Avitabile, and percussionist Bryce Leafman in the opener, Ginastera’s Cantos del Tucamán OP. 4 (1938). Rivera’s bright, youthful and ardent tenor found many colors and moods in the romantic poems of the Argentinean Rafael Jijena Sanchez, for which the writer provided poetic and decidedly non-literal English translations. He rendered “Vidal, vidita, vidala, vidalitá” (literally life, big life, little life, alive) as “My life, my song.” It sounded quite lyrical in Spanish, but the English words gave us marvelous entrée into the poetic images. “My life, my song, a silk kerchief, and love still waiting” floated to us over a jungle beat of the bombas, which sound something like bongos. Through the engaged collaboration of all five players, the three other bittersweet meditations on lost love achieved the satisfying consummations that the words begged for.

Osvalso Golijov’s Last Round (based on a boxing story by Julio Cortázar) paid tribute to Piazzola, who, after a stroke in 1992 “left us, in the words of the old tango, ‘without saying goodbye.’”  Golijov posits the entire orchestra as a giant bandoneon, which in the virtuoso fingers of Piazzola could “…condense the eroticism of legs and torso of the dance.” Golijov captured the savage and macho shriek of the button concertina as well as its oxymoronic driving tenderness. Gonzalez maintained an elastic pulse which thrust into a coda of passionate fire before yielding to an aria apparently based on the last third of “My Beloved Buenos Aires” that might have been intoned by Piaf. Sly slides, Cheshire cat grins and Valentino smirks shone in this slow drag. Golijov punctuated the closing very fast dance with idiomatically erotic hesitations, changing tempi almost bar by bar, climaxing in a breathtaking apocalyptic frenzy.

The subtitle of Luis Ruelas Romos’s Resilience: Piece for 13 Instruments got us thinking of Mozart’s Grand Partita. But in the world premiere run-through of this piece we detected none of the master’s lyricism, though Romo did reveal himself as an orchestrator with chops who could respect the voice of each instrument—and there were many more than 13 if you counted each constituent of the extensive percussion battery. Other than repeated punctuations with martial bass and snare drum rolls and a something in the bass trombone which Gonzalez later identified as cynical comments on the Mexican national anthem, structural organization proved elusive and affect evanescent. Romo’s program note polemic, which dedicated Resilience to victims of oppression, also tells us that it “manifests the musician’s moral responsibility to be a vigilant speaker for society.” The words raised expectations for engagement and emotional depth that the colorful and imaginative but indeterminate sounds delivered only fitfully.

On the basis of his Two Seasons of the Caribbean Tropics, one can add the name of Paul Desenne (1959-) to the list of Latino composers such as Ginastera, Piazzola, and Golijov that entertainingly straddle hot and cold blooded miens of New Spain and Old Europe. Certainly not all composers of weather programmed works allude to Vivaldi’s Seasons, but this one surely did in something of an apotheosis of the Venetian’s rhetoric.

“The rainy season…can be extremely annoying…and the dry season can be just as devastating, when nature’s territory shrinks in agony,” Desenne tell us. His “injection of Caribbean music and intense rhythmic treatment” make for a spicy cauldron where Vivaldi bubbles up one minute and double troubles of Gottschalk and Piazzola the next. Gonzalez presided over this Ivesian plum pudding with as much geniality as PDQ Bach. But very much her own were lightning changes of tempo, meter and affect all cued and shaped to a fare-the-well.

Fronted by violinist Saul Bitran’s fabulously over-the-top concerto expressiveness, the 20 eager and responsive players gave us half an hour of Vivaldi Furioso and Tremolo Agitato in a facetious but affectionate “Venetian Jam session.”

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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