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Christopher Wilkins’ Summer Blog- Fiesta sinfónica

July 21, 2014

The Boston Landmarks Orchestra will perform its first concert of the summer at the DCR’s Hatch Shell on Wednesday, July 23 at 7 PM. Here are a few words from Music Director Christopher Wilkins.


Music has little respect for political boundaries. In more than three centuries of musical sharing between key port cities in the New World – Havana, Port-au-Prince, New Orleans, New York, Miami – it is often impossible to determine what started where, who gets the credit, and whose tradition it is.

All of the works on tonight’s program are crossbreeds. They derive from European dances, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, and American innovations. The European influences are primarily Spanish, English, French, and Portuguese. The African derivations come mainly from the two great musical regions of Black Africa: the northern grassland below the Sahara (Senegal), and the forested south (Congo).

George Gershwin made a career of blending styles. Rhapsody in Blue (1924) set the tone: “I heard it as a… musical kaleidoscope of America,” he said. Porgy and Bess (1935) is almost a catalog of American musical traditions. In 1932, Gershwin visited Cuba and, with his infallible ear, easily assimilated the sound and feel of Afro-Cuban music. After a two-week stay, he produced a ten-minute work called Rumba. He later changed the title to Cuban Overture, which he considered more apt for a “serious” orchestral work.

During the 1930s, Cuban music enjoyed an enormous surge in popularity. The danzón and the Cuban rumba rose to international prominence. In the 40s and 50s, Afro-Cuban music positively flourished in New York City, the de facto home to “mambo mania.” Arsenio Rodríguez and Tito Puente led the way at the Palladium Ballroom, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie incorporated Afro-Cuban music in an historic concert of jazz at Carnegie Hall. Chano Pozo was Dizzy’s drummer. He is remembered today as a progenitor of Latin jazz.

David Amram writes, “I joined Dizzy, Stan Getz and Earle “Fatha” Hines in March of 1977 where each of our respective bands gave the first-ever concert in Cuba since the revolution, with the sanction of the US State Department. The entire concert was dedicated to the memory of Chano Pozo… At the concert – with only a minute of a backstage outline to all the musicians – I was joined by trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and the great family drum ensemble Los Papines.”

It was Dizzy Gillespie who suggested that Amram produce an orchestral version of that experience. Amram obliged, and the result was En memoria de Chano Pozo.

The decade of the 1930s found artists in a populist mood. Economic hardship called for art that served the common folk. Not coincidentally, it was also a decade of enormous growth for the film industry. 1939 is often cited as the greatest year in US film history (Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). In Mexico, the grand spectacles of Hollywood were considered a threat to their own burgeoning film industry. Mexican film director Chano Urueta distanced himself from Hollywood’s resplendent style by invoking distinctly Mexican traditions instead. In developing that aesthetic, he had the ideal partner in composer Silvestre Revueltas. “The spirit of Mexico is deep within me,” Revueltas wrote. He had an uncanny ability to express the spirit of Mexican culture without directly quoting folk material. His music is inherently colorful, earthy and eclectic, like Mexico itself.

La noche de los Mayas (The Night of the Mayas) lies at the center of the “Aztec Renaissance,” a movement taking inspiration from native history, ideals and expression. One of the few national awards Urueta’s film did not win was for set design, because the film was shot almost entirely in the ancient Mayan ruins of the Yucatán. Revueltas’s music evokes qualities he saw in the landscape, and sounds he imagined to be ancient Mayan ceremonial music. His score employs a great many indigenous percussion instruments, or their modern equivalents. Of special note are the log drum, Indian drums, and the conch shell.

The Fiesta sinfónica program has been a highlight of the Landmarks Orchestra’s season for the past three years. At the heart of it has been a commissioned work of Gonzalo Grau, Viaje. Viaje began as a musical travelogue through four Caribbean nations. This year, two new Latin American countries have been added to the tour: Gonzalo’s native Venezuela and Brazil.

Our performing partners in Viaje, and in David Amram’s work, are the extraordinary members of the “pocket-sized salsa orchestra” that Alex Alvear has brought together. They comprise many of the leading performers of Latin jazz in Boston, and indeed in the nation. No experience of Latin popular music is complete without dancing, and we have some of the best in Bajucol, a leading Latin American folkloric youth ballet company in Boston, led by Miguel Vargas.

− Christopher Wilkins

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