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Latin music: Salsa, merengue, and samba rhythms come to the concert hall

Latin music influences – including salsa, merengue, and samba – are seeping into the concert hall as directors seek to broaden the appeal.

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Beginning April 6, the Los Angeles Philharmonic hosts a month-long festival, "Americas and Americans," which will feature the folk-inspired "Cantata Criolla," and the theatrical passion play, "Pasión según San Marcos" ("The Passion According to St. Mark").

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"Dudamel is an example of the next generation influencing American culture," says Eduardo Marturet, conductor of the Miami Symphony Orchestra. "This music is seductive," he says. "It is soulful and rhythmic, and audiences want to hear it."

This is in stark contrast to the response of most audiences to modern classical music throughout much of the past century. "Audiences hated atonal music, and orchestras didn't want to spend the time learning to play it," many dubbing it mere noise, he says. "And the musical establishment was arrogant."

Musicologist Walter Clark, director of the Center for Iberian and Latin American Music at the University of California, Riverside, goes further. Once modern composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen pushed the evolution of composition beyond melody and rhythm into "ametricality and atonality," they left their public behind. But, he adds, "there is a clear break between composers who viewed their audiences as a howling, ignorant mass of whom they were contemptuous and younger composers today, who want to attract audiences and are trying to bridge that gap with more melody and rhythm."

The Oakland East Bay Symphony recently tapped well-known Latin music performer and San Francisco City College music professor Rebeca Mauleón to create an orchestral work, a first for the Grammy-nominated composer. The four-part "Suite Afro-Cubano," which debuted in February, is a symphonic poem about the island nation and its mixed Spanish and African heritage.