When we, in the U.S., talk of American music, we mean music written on our shores. But we find it difficult to meaningfully say more, even if a cowboy tune is always a giveaway. On the other hand, we think we have a better idea about the music of the other Americas, especially Mexico. Feisty rhythm, maracas, folk music, lots of color all quickly come to mind.
The pigeonholing is not altogether wrong. The culture in Mexico is not so diverse as that in the U.S. -- no other culture is. But Mexico nonetheless has a number of interesting composers who interact with international styles and who have a history of doing so.
It is that encounter between the indigenous and outside influences that made the Mexican theme of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's program Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion fascinating. In a sense, it could hardly be otherwise, what with a Finnish music director presiding. Coming from a country where there is little racial diversity, Esa-Pekka Salonen has often spoken of the strong attraction that multicultural Los Angeles holds for him.
The filters in this program are many. Copland's "El Salon Mexico" is Mexican folk song turned Americana. Gabriela Ortiz's "Altar de Piedra" (Altar of Stone), a world premiere, attempts to find common ground between an international new music style and vernacular. And Silvestre Revueltas' soundtrack to the film "Redes" (Nets), performed here live to the film, was the collaboration between the Mexican composer, the American photographer Paul Strand and the Austrian emigre director Fred Zinnemann.
Mexicans tend to hear "El Salon Mexico" as Mexican, a jumble of familiar folk tunes. Americans, however, hear it as pure Copland, aural snapshots from a tourist's camera. But Salonen, who has faced similar compositional issues in his own music, comes to Copland's first score in a populist style with different affinities. His exacting and exhilarating performance Thursday demonstrated how Copland not so much broke with his earlier Modernist style in the mid-1930s as expanded it into new and unimagined realms.
Before performing Ortiz's new piece, Salonen invited her on stage and devilishly asked her if she found Copland's score irritating. A composer born in Mexico City in 1964 to parents who established the ensemble Los Folkloristas, she, after all, is the real thing. She refused the bait, blandly praising Copland's orchestration. And likewise in her music, she seemed to take pains to say all the right things.
"Altar de Piedra" is a concerto for four solo percussionists and a magnificent battery of percussion instruments -- lots of standard mallets instruments and drums, but also such exotic things as Peruvian boxes, on which the soloists sit and drum. Four members from the Swedish percussion ensemble Kroumata were the soloists.
The work has an appealing poetic inspiration from a 1953 Cuban novel, "Los Pasos Perdidos" (The Lost Steps) by Alejo Carpentier, about a Cuban ethnomusicologist researching Amazonian instruments. Ortiz has taken beautiful images from the book, including the unforgettable one of a maraca-playing angel for the first movement. But the mass of percussion overwhelms her. There is simply too much color, what with all the banging of the soloists, so that it often blends into a kind of sonic gray. There were interesting sonic effects in the orchestra, but the Philharmonic felt far in the background behind all the percussion. The four members of Kroumata were enthusiastic and solid soloists, and should have left it at that. Instead they returned for an irrelevant tango encore.
"Redes," the 1935 hourlong little-seen film about the class struggle of poor Veracruz fishermen, originally released in the U.S. as "The Wave," proved a revelation when presented with Revueltas' score performed live by the Santa Barbara Symphony three years ago. One had hoped that, given the magnificence of Strand's bleakly stunning cinematography, the film might by now have been restored -- it is in pretty bad shape. Still, Revueltas' music is gripping, and, even in this state, the two elements together make an overpowering effect.
The Philharmonic performance was expert and commanding. Watching "Redes" with the music so prominently in your face reveals just what an effect Revueltas' score made on Zinnemann, whose first film this was -- he co-directed it with Emilio Gomez Muriel. Later Zinnemann elevated his most important film, "High Noon," by its use of music. That surely would not have happened without the earlier exposure to a great Mexican composer.
Music of Mexico
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: Today, 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.
Contact: (323) 850-2000