Why not? It seemed like a good idea, and a logical one, for the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra to plan a program titled “Scene Change: Untold Musical Stories of Latin America.”
The ensemble’s current artistic director and conductor, Alejandro Gomez Guillen, one year into his Bloomington tour of duty, was undoubtedly a factor. He is a native of Bogota, Colombia. He grew up in an environment lush with Latin American musical traditions. So, it was natural for him to tempt his musicians with a challenge: to perform a concert featuring Latin American music. It was music the young maestro grew up with. Why not, he decided. Why not challenge them with a program of music unlike those they usually plan and perform, instead with a concert of classical music from South America?
Not only was their leader a knowledgeable enthusiast, but there was Indiana University’s Latin American Music Center to collaborate with. On Saturday evening in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Gomez Guillen’s good idea became reality. Present in the enthusiastic audience was none other than the founder of IU’s center, the retired professor and eminent Chilean composer Juan Orrego-Salas, who agreed to allow Gomez Guillen and the orchestra to play two pieces of his, including one that had waited long to receive a premiere. Added were works born in Brazil, Peru and Colombia.
Challenge accepted became challenge met. One heard a realized program exceptionally well prepared. Gomez Guillen has proven to be an effective conductor, capable of drawing the ultimate best from an orchestra such as the BSO, this from having previously conducted several other civic and student ensembles.
The two Orrego-Salas compositions became the center of the project. His “Introduccion y Allegro Concertante,” written in 1999, is scored for four-hand piano and the principals of an orchestra’s wind, string and percussion sections. The piece abounds in rhythms, often more than one at the same time; it abounds also in flamboyance. The two pianists, IU Opera Theater coach Kim Carballo and retired Illinois State University music professor Paul Borg, discoursed excitedly across the keyboard while the orchestra’s instrumental leaders added their voices, pensively in the “Introduccion” and exuberantly in the “Allegro.”
“Ash Wednesday,” the Orrego-Salas composition given its debut, worked on one’s senses quite differently, having been written as a musical setting of T.S. Eliot’s 1930 reflective poem of the same name about how, considering the troubling state of the human tradition, to move an individual, one’s self, from spiritual despair to salvation. The music, contemplative in nature, movingly underscores the literary theme. Voicing the words was soprano Alejandra Martinez, who not only captured the sentiments but supplied diction almost pure enough to have made the supertitles cast above the stage unnecessary. Almost, and that’s praise because “almost” is all too rarely to be experienced in contemporary music.
Prior to the musical performance of “Ash Wednesday,” Tony Brewer, chair of the Bloomington Writers Guild, read aloud the Eliot poem, a wise decision that prepared a listener for the music’s seesaw shifts from despairing state to hopeful and back again.
Saturday’s program began with a Brazilian overture that has no opera, the 1904 Prelude to “O Garatuja” by Alberto Nepomuceno, a piece with enough melodic zip to garner attention. Two Colombian compositions were included in the “Scene Change” festivities: Guillermo Uribe Holguin’s “Bajo su ventana” (“Under the Window”), with its charming guitar-like plucking, meant to suggest a lover serenading his love in “Romeo and Juliet” fashion, and Adolfo Mejia’s “Bachianas,” a short and beguiling composition for string orchestra that honors the musical sound of Johann Sebastian Bach and that of the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ famous salute to Johann Sebastian, “Bachianas Brazileiras.”
Both were passionately played, as was the program’s closer, a 20-minute “Retablos Sinfonicos” (“Symphonic Tableaux”) by the Peruvian composer Celso Garrido-Lecca, a four-movement work that winningly sets into symphonic form the dances and cultural traditions of people in various parts of Peru. Bravo to Maestro Gomez Guillen and the Bloomington Symphony, now his to continue shaping artistically. He appears to be the right leader in the right place at the right time to build on its past and present. After Latin music, what’s next?