María Guinand was not exactly the ideal choice to lead the Los Angeles Master Chorale's "Día de los Muertos" program Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The fantastical festivities around the Day of the Dead holiday are a distinctively Mexican mix of Aztec and Catholic customs that has not really filtered into South America. Guinand happens to be a leading figure in Venezuelan music, which has its own compelling traditions.
Plus, her being Venezuelan meant the Master Chorale required a Plan B. She is an outspoken proponent of democracy, and the political situation in her country is so fraught, there was real question about whether she would be permitted to travel.
But Guinand happened to be the best guest conductor the Master Chorale could have had while its music director, Grant Gershon, is in San Francisco, where he will conduct the world premiere of John Adams' opera "Girls of the Golden West" in three weeks. She was a chance worth taking, whatever the risks.
Closely associated with her country's famed El Sistema education program since its founding, Guinand was one of Gustavo Dudamel's mentors. She also directs the Schola Cantorum of Venezuela, which is the single most electrifying chorus I've ever heard. She isn't just a great choral conductor and legendary educator, but a force of nature.
So it was hardly surprising that Guinand proved no match for the Venezuelan authorities. Of course, she got out. Of course, she's going back.
Reading a prepared statement to the audience, she announced that she had no intention of giving up the space for musical expression she had carved out in her country, nor would she compromise her goals for government support. "It is not enough to target money," Guinand said. "You need to have freedom and peace. I am ready to be part of a new Venezuela."
This, obviously, gave particular meaning to her program, which was divided into two parts: Death and Celebration. The music was not limited to Mexico but included a wide swath of the various styles of Latin American music — and Norway! She is best known internationally as the conductor who premiered and recorded Osvaldo Golijov's "La Pasíon Según San Marco," with its fabulous blend of Afro-Cuban and Argentinian dance forms within the formal framework of a retelling of the St. Mark Gospel. That the passion became an immediate sensation was in good part due to the dance vitality of Guinand's Schola Cantorum.
Death on Sundayhad reason to be proud, and to kick up its heels, in the somberly difficult but often startling four pieces in the first half, which gradually moved the Master Chorale out of its comfort zone of simply standing and singing. Guinand began with the harsh sonorities, some practically hurting the ears, of Argentine modernist Alberto Ginastera's Jeremiah lamentations, "Lamentaciones de Profeta Jeremías." Rodolfo Halffter, a Spanish composer who immigrated to Mexico, viewed death more sentimentally, from the graves of Don Quixote, Dulcinea and Sancho Panza in his "Tres Epitafios" (Three Epitaphs)
Drums and Yoruban wailing enlivened Cuban composer Calixto Álvarez's "Réquiem de Osún," calling upon the deity Osún in a score originally written to mourn the death of, as the program notes describe him, a Cuban "pimp, politician and racketeer." A movement from a chorus concerto by Guinand compatriot Miguel Astor enacted the political murder of a bullfighter during the Spanish Civil War as recounted in a Lorca poem. For this powerful recent piece with its contemporary political overtones, the chorus members beat their bodies. Tenor Tim Gonzalez intoned an Andalusian lament. Members of the chorus began and exited the stage making bellowing noises through their hands.
The celebration of the dead that followed was only moderately joyous, hardly grotesque, far from frivolous and essentially defiant. If Guinand had included "We Shall Overcome" as an encore, it wouldn't have been out of place.
The better world here glimpsed was first fairy-tale cornball in Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo's New Agey fable of a captured unicorn, "Unicornis Captivatur." But with Cuban populist Leo Brouwer's song of celebration, "Cántico de Celebración," Carlos Alberto Pinto Fonseca's jubilant, Afro-Brazilian "Jubiabà" and Cuban Guido López Gavilán's Soviet rumba "El Guayaboso" (The Liar), three sure signs of life — love, lasciviousness and larceny — extravagantly entered the picture.
In contrast, Alberto Grau, Guinand's husband and the dean of Venezuelan choral music, hailed the sonorous celestial sun (of a New Venezuela?) in a textured, luminous setting of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario's "Salve al Celeste Sol Sonoro."
Finally, Diana Syrse — the young Mexican composer and recent California Institute of the Arts graduate whose new piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic was one of the highlights of its CDMX Festival — rejected laughing at Death or Death laughing at us. Smiles do the trick.
Her smiling death, "La Muerte Sonriente," had bells on its feet. (Some chorus members removed their shoes and put on tinkling ankle bracelets.) Her text conjured skulls made of white sugar and a white Death of perfected bones. The choristers took up the Aztec death whistle, ocarina and other folk instruments. Death was candy-coated in song and dance, not out of avoidance but exuberance, out of knowing that there are things worth living for and things worth dying for.
All evening, Guinand, an exacting conductor both musically and passionately, kept the Master Chorale on its toes, and thanks to Syrse, a fraction of an inch higher. Remember that name.