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.

Courtesy of Manolo Santana
Latin jazz pianist, composer, and professor Rebeca Mauleón plays. ‘It’s just impossible not to respond to this music,’ she says.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Lamark/University of Rochester
Chilean Felipe Hidalgo conducted the University of Rochester Symphony Orchestra at the university's Strong Auditorium Feb. 27, 2010. The violinist and founder of the Youth Orchestra of Santiago, Chile, Hidalgo hosted the University of Rochester Chamber Orchestra in Santiago last year.

From salsa to merengue, mambo, samba, and tango – not to mention the current reggaeton – Latin rhythms and melodies have been spicing up popular music for years. But now the infectious, downright hip-swinging, finger-snapping, and foot-stomping influences of folk and popular traditions from every corner of Central and South America are turning up in concert halls, played by symphony orchestras all over the United States. From Honolulu to Westfield, Fort Worth to Indianapolis, and Miami to Los Angeles, works with poetic titles such as "Los Caminos del Inca," "Dos Visions," and "Peregrinos" are being played by classically trained ensembles. These are orchestras whose programs have more often featured Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach than Chavez, Mauleón, and Ginastera. But with symphonies struggling to find new audiences as the ranks of traditional concertgoers thin, what began as a trickle is becoming a flood.

"The incorporation of Latin-based music into the classical world is long overdue. It represents one of the freshest and most promising trends on the music scene today," writes Carol Reynolds, music history professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, in an e-mail.

"Orchestras are tapping new audiences that are thirsty for the vibrant blending of Latin themes with traditional classical-based forms," she says, adding that classical music thrived when it told the ongoing story of Western culture, but if it ignores a new rising cultural narrative, it becomes a museum piece. "Arts organizations who recognize and incorporate Hispanic culture are both at the cutting edge and ensuring their own future," she says.

Perhaps nowhere is this aggressive push to usher the sounds of the entire hemisphere into the recital space more evident than in Los Angeles. This season's arrival of Venezuela's superstar conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, has ignited a love affair with tonalities from south of the US border. This desire to broaden the symphonic palette expresses what the young maestro calls "one American music," from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego. "In our modern history we separate the music of North and South America," says Mr. Dudamel, but he adds, it's not true. "It is very important to have an America with no division, no South America, no North America but one America, one music, one life," he said at a press conference.

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").

"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.

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.

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."

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