Classical Rhythm

he European classical tradition has been present to one degree or another in virtually every Latin American nation since the colonial days, and several composers from the region---Villa-Lobos, Ginastera, Ponce and Chávez, to name a few--- have gained international recognition. But for the most part, the rich repertoire of indigenous classical music from throughout Latin America remains sadly neglected by major record labels and symphony orchestras. The four artists spotlighted here, however, have embarked on strikingly different paths to bring more attention to classical gems with a Latino accent.

Conductor Alondra de la Parra, born in New York City to Mexican parents, created the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas in 2004 with the goal of introducing the classical music of Mexico to audiences that might not otherwise be able to experience it. The orchestra’s debut recording, Mi Alma Mexicana/My Mexican Soul (Sony Classical), offers a truly epic cross section of Mexican classical fare. The program’s 15 tracks range from early 20th Century composer José Pablo Moncayo’s festive “Huapango,” a rhythmically intense piece highlighted by the folkloric texture of Veracruz-style harp ornamentations, to more contemporary works, such as pianist Eugenio Toussaint’s lissome and majestic “Concierto para piano improvisado y orquesta.” Rounding out the program are Federico Ibarra’s brooding “Sinfonía No. 2” and Manuel M. Ponce’s charismatic “Concierto del Sur para guitarra y orquesta.” De la Parra’s handpicked program is a compelling introduction to the wealth of Mexico’s classical heritage.

Another relative newcomer, Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, has secured her ever expanding global stature via a winning combination of personal style and virtuosity. On Solatino (EMI Classics), her fifth release in just six years, she presents almost 80 minutes of music on 29 tracks that include brief, self-composed interludes that are largely improvised. While some of the program may be overly familiar to aficionados, such as Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s iconic “Malagueña” from his revered Andalucía Suite, Montero wisely uses the album to focus on the artistry of such lesser known artists as Antonio Estévez, performing four of the composer’s capricious “Piezas infantiles,” and María Teresa Carreño, both noted Venezuelan composers. What immediately impresses about Montero’s playing is her sense of rhythm, which is central to interpreting works often grounded in popular music idioms. Her full command of dynamics and the emotional quality of her readings make this recital something truly special.

Multi Grammy-winning composer, arranger and pianist Carlos Franzetti delivers an artistic coup of stunning, timeless beauty as he walks the fine line between the classical, jazz and popular worlds and manages to appropriate the best of all traditions on Alborada (Amapola Records). Featuring his classical pianist wife Allison Brewster Franzetti and the City of Prague Philharmonic, the native of Buenos Aires says that his intent was to compose a suite for orchestra and piano “using different elements of Latin American music.” The mixing of such seemingly disparate influences produces a swirl of orchestral tension one moment, the warm embrace of harmonic bliss the next. On the haunting “Illuminada,” for instance, he draws inspiration from French composer Henri Dutilleux’s Neo-Romantic orchestral music and the quintessential Latin bolero. Alborada is a one-of-a-kind aural treasure that doesn’t come along often enough.

Recorded with Poland’s Sinfonia Varsovia and conducted by Nicaragua-born maestro Giancarlo Guerrero, Caribbean Rhapsody (Emarcy) marries the talents of Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra and jazz saxophonist James Carter. Not often heard in a classical setting, the saxophone, particularly when played by a musician of Carter’s improvisational acumen, offers the composer a range of stylistic options not feasible with many other instruments. On “Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra,” one of two Sierra works on the session, Carter’s tenor offers an array of personalities, from schizophrenic forays to film noir-style romanticism and grunts, growls and screams that are often offset by edgy harmonics in the string section. Caribbean Rhapsody is a rewarding, if challenging, example of what can emerge when classical trappings and the language of modern jazz meet on common ground.

Mark Holston