For the most part, "CDMX," the Los Angeles Philharmonic's festival celebrating the music of Ciudad Mexico, or Mexico City, was hardly "hermetic," the term the great Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz used to describe his country's complex culture in his classic book of essays, "The Labyrinth of Solitude." There were, for one thing, way too many vivid shouts of "Viva Mexico!" for any suggestion of solitude.
Labyrinth is another matter. "The Mexican," Paz famously and controversially (then and even more so now) wrote in his 1950 book, "does not want to be either an Indian or a Spaniard. … He denies them. … He becomes the son of Nothingness. His beginnings are in his own self."
The labyrinth presented itself — and He, not She, it mostly was — in the orchestra concerts, two featuring major pop artists (the exceptional young folk-jazz star Natalia Lafourcade and the band Café Tacvba) as well as an enticing evening of film music played to mouthwatering film clips. Gustavo Dudamel conducted all.
As festivals go, some things worked spectacularly well while others failed just as spectacularly. Lafourcade deals with some of Paz's issues from a welcome feminist perspective, and her concert, previously reported on, was a high point for the striking orchestral pieces by established Mexican composers and for the exceptional arrangements, particularly by Ljova, for the singer and her band.
Café Tacvba on Sunday offered an evening of incompatibilities. The banal orchestral arrangements here did the band, the orchestra and the conductor no favors. The band's installation of tacky lighting panels (looking like they were picked up a decade ago from a Brookstone closeout — no refunds!) interfered with reflecting panels. Electronic equipment required the stage doors to remain open. And with the hall's acoustical curtains only installed when amplified sound needs dampening, the L.A. Phil sounded flat, as though it were in a movie lot sound studio.
Uncharacteristically, neither Dudamel nor the orchestra captured the flavor of the four "Danzón" by Arturo Márquez. No. 9, commissioned for the occasion, was a filmy, nostalgic look back at the composer's hit No. 2.
The Green Umbrella program Tuesday night was a tour of a vastly different musical neighborhood of a populous metropolis. Five composers, born between 1971 and 1984, were commissioned to write pieces for the L.A. Phil New Music Group. To a certain extent, they represent a 21st century impulse to deal with Paz's hermeticism.
All are worldly, having lived and studied abroad. All, in a preconcert talk, spoke of having been defined by Mexico City simply by growing up there. But they felt no need to make nationalistic statements in their music. All are intellectuals as likely to quote French literary theorists as the Jungian Paz, although Jung comes up as well. But mainly, what they care about is sound for sound's sake. Inner cultural conflicts can speak for themselves.
In discussing his piece, "Phantasy on a," Édgar Guzmán said that art was about being nowhere, which left him with the quandary of how to write after a disaster. Though obviously written before the recent Mexico City earthquake, the score for five brass instruments and percussion grabs the attention for the way chords decay, uncovering normally hidden harmonic layers that seem to hold the key to mysteries.
Juan Felipe Waller's "Echo Chamber Chronicles" for a large chamber ensemble goes in the opposite direction, namely creating a series of reverberant emergences. The son of Nothingness becomes a stunning Something. Both Alejandro Cataños in his string quartet "Puntos de Inflexión" ("Turning Point") and Iván Naranjo in his chamber orchestra "to what" toy with sonorities influenced by the French spectral composers and their fascination with overtones. The string quartet's turning point is a wild, inventive violin solo played with starry flair by Nathan Cole. The orchestral work breaks up the musicians into groups going their own ways and coming together, like traffic.
Diana Syrse's "Connected Identities" addressed her culture directly and personally, although still allegorically. An arresting singer as well as composer who studied at CalArts, she sang, danced and enacted a ritual of Mexican identity, dealing with cultural backgrounds, language, immigration and Jung along with the way. The text by Aleksi Barriére begins with the memorable line, "My ears are spotted." It, as were the chamber orchestra works, was led by the excellent Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto.
In the end, the unexpected news from CDMX is She rather than He. The only two prominent Mexican women in the festival happen to be both singers and composers born in 1984. And both Lafourcade and Syrse (who will have a piece in a Los Angeles Master Chorale concert next week and who is writing a music theater work for Kent Nagano's Hamburg State Opera) appear destined to play a defining role the future of Mexican music.