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Chris Wilkins’ Summer Blog “A Night in the Tropics”

July 25, 2013

Here are a few words from Music Director, Christopher Wilkins on our upcoming performance entitled Fiesta sinfónica: A night in the Tropics. 

Fiesta sinfónica:

A Night in the Tropics

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a one-of-a-kind. A Southern abolitionist whose music was admired by both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Gottschalk’s most American trait may have been his knack for bridging cultural divides.

Born in New Orleans in 1829, Gottschalk was sent as a teenager to study piano and composition in Paris. Chopin heard the young prodigy perform and predicted he would become “the king of pianists.” Gottschalk’s early piano pieces in a “Creole” style made him a household name throughout the continent before he was twenty. He returned to the United States in 1853 and began an extended tour of Latin America.

Wherever his travels took him, Gottschalk absorbed local popular styles into his music, anticipating later developments by decades. There are African-derived dance rhythms foreshadowing ragtime and echoes of Caribbean drumming that did not reappear in concert music until the mambo craze of the 1930’s. He was also a consummate showman. His Symphony No. 1, A Night in the Tropics was premiered in Havana in 1859 with over 650 performers, including a symphony orchestra, a US military band, and drummers from the eastern tip of Cuba, also known as Guantánamo.

Thomas Oboe Lee is a Boston treasure. His music is rich in international influences, and exudes a spirit that would have thrilled Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Most of all, he loves finding creative ways to celebrate his many friends and admirers. He writes:

“It is very interesting that Mambo!!! I wrote it for Charles Ansbacher and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in 2003, and they performed it many times. When Charles told me he wanted a short work with a Latin American flavor, I said that would be fabulous since I had written several works in that vein. After all, I lived in São Paulo, Brazil during my teens. But I had to do some research. I found a couple of mambo CDs by the inimitable Tito Puente. After a few listening sessions, I got it.  So, here we have it: a TOL Mambo!”

In 1905, Heitor Villa-Lobos made the first of many trips by steam-powered train through Brazil’s interior, collecting stories and folk songs. The Little Train of the Brazilian Countryman is a captivating example of folk-inspired music and a stunning experiment in orchestral effects. From a standstill, the train begins to move with heavy alternating chords. We hear the creaking of the railcars in the woodwinds, the sound of metal on metal in the high strings, and escaping steam in the shakers. It is a masterful tribute to his homeland. “Yes, I’m Brazilian, very Brazilian. In my music I let the rivers and seas of this great country sing.”


Ever since its premier by the National Symphony of Mexico on August 15, 1941, Moncayo’s Huapango has enjoyed special status. Mexicans often refer to it as their “second national anthem.” By listening attentively and applying his brilliant gift for orchestration, Moncayo was able to transform a well-preserved style of folk music in Veracruz into his signature work, Huapango. (The following year Koussevitzky and Copland invited him to Tanglewood, where he became Leonard Bernstein’s classmate.)

Huapango is filled with masterful touches. In the beginning, Indian percussion – or their modern descendants – emerge from a rhythmic mist that coalesces into a driving accompaniment against which the main theme evokes the whoops and hollers of dancers. Floor-pounding rhythms alternate in groups of twos and threes, the characteristic pattern of a huapango. Harp and xylophone glissandos suggest the swirl of women’s dresses. In a middle section full of sweetness, a solo harp echoes the folk harp of Veracruz. A contest erupts between two male dancers (trumpet and trombone) leading to a final phrase thundering with reverberations of the original rhythmic mist.

The second half of tonight’s program is devoted to a single work, Gonzalo Grau’s Viaje. The work was commissioned for last year’s “Fiesta sinfónica,” which did not take place at the Hatch Shell due to rain. We welcome back Alex Alvear and his “pocket-sized salsa orchestra,” featuring several of Boston’s leading performers of Latin popular music and jazz. Our dancers provide a striking visual element, reminding us that in Latin America the spirit of dance lies at the heart of all music.

Working with elements of folk music, most composers appropriate whatever is most compatible with orchestral convention and leave the rest alone. It is a case of “adaptive reuse.” Mr. Grau’s goal was to present each popular tradition in its pure form, weaving the original type into the orchestral fabric. The various styles are in dialogue with one another. The whole approach is inventive and fresh, and perfectly in harmony with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s mission to encourage inclusiveness and a joyful spirit of collaboration.

– – Christopher Wilkins

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