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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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Writing for so many instruments was a daunting challenge, says Ms. Mauleón, but one that allowed her to tap virtually all the musical styles that are close to her heart, from flamenco to salsa, African drums, and Spanish classical guitar.

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Many composers, including Mauleón, have brought in an eclectic mix of indigenous instruments, such as wind sticks, hollowed logs, and wooden spoons. However, composers must balance a desire for exotic sounds with practical concerns, says Mr. Clark, adding, "How many orchestras have musicians trained to play a log?"

But evoking such a diverse sound palette without importing all the actual instruments was part of the fun for both Mauleón and the musicians. The largely conservatory-trained, somberly dressed players not only get to stomp their feet, but they also slap the wooden sides of their string instruments while castanets deliver the authentic Spanish feel.

"I could see them wiggling in their seats, because it's just impossible not to respond to this music," she says with a laugh.

The cultural exchange flows in both directions, says University of Rochester music professor David Harmon, who took the university's orchestra to Chile in 2009 to work with conductor Felipe Hidalgo.

In February, Mr. Hidalgo returned the visit when he brought a Latin-themed program featuring Marquez's "Danzon No. 2" and Ginastera's "Estancia." "The campesino music is an absolutely natural way to feel the music and have joy," says Hidalgo, adding that "it brings people together and gives them a sense of hope."

But while the sounds may be new to the symphony halls in the US, the tradition of tapping everyday life for inspiration is not. "Look at Aaron Copland's 'Hoedown,' " points out Mr. Harmon. "It's all about the common man, it's very authentic but it's also well crafted."

The assumption that music expressing the soul of the Latin American people is somehow naive or inferior to European works is a misperception that has hampered the acceptance of many works created by Latin American composers, Harmon says. "These are every bit as challenging, well constructed, and sophisticated as a work by Brahms or Copland," he says, but with the flavor of another culture.

As for those who suggest that the groundswell of cha-cha-ing and mambo-ing in the aisles of usually staid halls is nothing but a programming gimmick, L.A. Philharmonic president Deborah Borda says the orchestra has no interest in novelty programming. "We are interested in creating an artistic program that is infused with meaning by not only setting it in historical and cultural context, but also by the very quality of the music," she writes in an e-mail.

Harmon agrees that the Latin sound may not be the salvation of the classical music world, "but it is an important revitalization."