¡Cinco de Mayo!

Sunday / May 5, 2019 / 5 PM

Fritsche Theatre at Cowan Hall

Peter Stafford Wilson, conductor


Danzon No. 2                                                    Arturo Marques

Concierto del Sur                                             Manuel Ponce 

                               Karl Wohlwend, guitar

El Salon Mexico                                                 Aaron Copland

Symphony No. 1 “Sinfonia di Antigona”       Carlos Chavez

Huapango                                                           Jose Pablo Moncayo


Arturo Márquez: Danzón No. 2

…the range and variety of his music have elevated Arturo Márquez’s (b. 1950) stature as one of the most important Mexican composers of his generation, his use of traditional and popular idioms has inevitably been gauged against that giant of the mid-20th century, Carlos Chávez, a visionary whose works have been compared to the uncompromising political art of Siqueiros, Orozco and Rivera. Márquez’s most popular works have, indeed, played off his use of familiar and traditional idioms, as attested by the many awards he has accumulated. Purists may prefer the edgy avant-garde, yet all over the Americas, especially today, serious composers who acknowledge their populist cultural roots have won increasing acknowledgment in return from hungry follower fans. Danzón No. 2 and Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango have been embraced as unofficial national anthems of Mexico.

Márquez relates the inspiration behind his Danzón No. 2, when in 1993 he traveled to Malinalco (near Toluca) with the painter Andrés Fonseca and the dancer Irene Martínez, “both of whom are experts in salon dances with a special passion for the danzón.” That experience, plus later visits to Veracruz and the Colonia Danzón in Mexico City led him “to learn the danzón’s rhythms, its form, its melodic outline” and “to understand that the apparent lightness of the danzón is only like a visiting card for a type of music full of sensuality and qualitative seriousness…which old Mexican people continue to dance with a touch of nostalgia and a jubilant escape toward their own emotional world.” While the composer says he tried “to get as close as possible to the dance, its melodies and its wild rhythms,” he acknowledges that his symphonic setting “violates” its intimacy, form and harmonic language.   The traditional danzón, a salon dance for couples, uses rondo form and is derived from the 19th century contredanse and the Cuban habanera.

- Michael Scott MacClelland


Manuel Ponce: Concerto del sur

The Concierto del sur for guitar and orchestra is one of the pieces – there are many – that Mexican composer Manuel Ponce wrote for the legendary Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia. Ponce finished the piece in the autumn of 1941, just as the country to the north of Ponce’s was amending the Neutrality Act of 1939 and, though they didn’t know it at the time, about to be drawn into World War II by the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.

Ponce takes up the standard three-movement format for the Concierto.  The orchestra manages to put together just four bars of its own at the Start of the Allegro moderato first movement before the impatient soloist jumps with a series of firm, rolled six-note chords, which together with quiet orchestral off beats, encompass a full seven of the 12 possible chromatic tones.  Soon the soloist settles down to play around with the lean, spritely idea offered in those four opening orchestral bars.  At the end of the movement there is an extended cadenza for the guitarist.

The second movement is Andante that is more a gracefully florid intermezzo than a slow movement per se.  The finale is a festive, dancing Allegro that returns to us via bouncing 3/8 time eight notes, to the A major in which the first movement closed.

- Blair Johnson


Aaron Copland: El Salón México

In the fall of 1932, Aaron Copland made his first visit to Mexico. Unlike most visitors to that country, he avoided the major tourist attractions in favor of partaking of the more local culture.

"For a couple of months I lived in a village where there were no tourists," he later recalled, "and somehow I think I managed to get the' feel' of the country."  Inspired by what he had seen and heard there, he began El Salón México, an orchestral fantasy loosely based upon popular Mexican themes, the following year.  Interestingly, Copland wrote the major portion of this score in Bemidji, Minnesota, 250 miles north of Minneapolis, in a climate far removed from that about which he was depicting in music.  Completed in July of 1936, El Salón México received its premiere on August 27 of the following year, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, with Carlos Chavez conducting the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico.  At first, Copland had been concerned about how Mexicans would react to a "gringo" meddling with their native melodies.  This all changed, however, when he arrived in Mexico City for the rehearsals.  "As I entered the hall," he recalled, "the orchestral players, who were in the thick of a Beethoven symphony, suddenly stopped what they were doing and began to applaud vigorously.  What they were expressing, I soon realized, was not so much their appreciation for one composer's work, as their pride in the fact that a foreign composer had found their own familiar tunes worthy of treatment."

Copland himself described El Salón México as "a light and bouncy number, an attempt to evoke a Mexican atmosphere."  In it, he uses several authentic Mexican folk melodies, among them "El Mosco," "El Palo verde," and "La Jesusita;" however, he subjects them to his own distinctive methods of metric, rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic metamorphoses.  As one Mexican critic later noted, Copland "had synthesized what is strongest and most characteristic of Mexican folk melody, rhythm, and harmony without taking away one whit of the freshness and beauty of the Mexican song."

The title of the work was inspired by Salón México, a rather notorious, Harlem-type Mexico City nightclub which featured several dance bands performing simultaneously in its three adjacent upstairs halls, the first of which was for tourists; the second, for locals wearing shoes; and the third, for locals who were barefoot.  But it wasn't the music of this popular "hot spot" that impressed Copland as much as the spirit of the place.  "In some inexplicable way," he said, "while milling about in those crowded halls, I had felt a live contact with the Mexican people--that electric sense one gets sometimes in far-off places, of suddenly knowing the essence of a people--their humanity, their shyness, their dignity and unique charm.  I remember quite well that it was at just such a moment I conceived the idea of composing a piece about Mexico and naming it El Salón México.

©-Kenneth C. Viant


Carlos Chávez: Symphony no. 1 “Sinfonía de Antígona”

In 1948, when the French composer Edgard Varèse was asked to give a series of lectures on twentieth-century music at Columbia University, he wrote to his longtime friend Carlos Chávez, “In such a course, covering all phases of contemporary music, it is possible to speak only of a limited number of composers individually. Among these I should like to include you. I shall illustrate the lectures with records, and should also like to have a statement…a sort of credo…from each composer.” In response, Chávez sent the score and recording of his Sinfonía de Antígona as his most representative composition.

Sinfonía de Antígona was composed and premiered in 1933, but the genesis of the Symphony lay in the incidental music that Chávez wrote in 1932 for Jean Cocteau’s modernist version of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, which the Mexican experimental theatre group Teatro Orientación staged that year in Mexico City. Chávez reworked the incidental music into a Symphony that is every bit as stark, modern, and intense as Cocteau’s version of the tragedy and its modern mise-en-scène.

Mexican art in the 1920s and ‘30s has been represented as having a uniformly nationalist orientation, yet, for most Mexican artists, nationalism and modernism were but two sides of the same coin. 1932 in particular was a year of intense public debate on the relative merits of nationalism, universalism and modernity. Clearly on the side of keeping Mexican art abreast with an international modernity was the group of poets known as Los Contemporáneos—Salvador Novo, Xavier Villaurrutia, and José Gorostiza, among others—who were associated with a number of literary and theatrical ventures, such as Teatro Orientación, in which Chávez participated.

More than any other work by Chávez, Sinfonía de Antígona evidences the extent to which the composer developed a personal style that can be coded primitivist, abstract or modern, Greek or Aztec, at will. In this Symphony, Chávez makes use of resources that can be considered his trademark: unsentimental, diatonic melodies that are often modal, linear instead of harmonic textures, controlled dissonance, vertical aggregations made of open fourths and fifths, and a conjunct melodic style made of short rhythmic motives that evolve by small, almost imperceptible variations, and often curl upon themselves melodically. These resources, which Chávez shares with many composers of the time, can be used to represent the primitive or just as easily, in the case of Antígona, the ancient, remote Greek.

As Chávez explained in his note to Varèse, the Symphony is not programmatic, but is inspired only by the sentiments that dominate the tragedy, ascribed by the composer to Antigone herself: nobility, defiance, heroism, martyrdom. “The atmosphere of intense tragedy is established in the first measures and persists throughout the work,” he wrote. Indeed, as we know from the reviews of the composer’s many performances of this Symphony, Chávez kept an exhilarating intensity of feeling from beginning to end. Such was the breathless attention commanded by these performances that when in 1943 Leopold Stokowski conducted the Orquesta Sinfónica de Mexico in a performance of Antígona, audience and critics were disappointed by the variety of feelings that Stokowski chose to invoke.

Despite its lack of a program, Antígona has attracted attention as music for the dance. We know, for example, from a letter to Chávez sent in 1936 by Frida Kahlo, that the composer’s friend Diego Rivera was planning to create the scenery and costumes of a ballet based on the Symphony, a project he did not complete due to problems with his eyes. Antígona did finally receive a rendition as a ballet in 1951, however, with choreography by José Limón and designs by Miguel Covarrubias.

- By Leonora Saavedra, University of California Riverside


José Pablo Moncayo García: Huapango

Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, José Pablo Moncayo was introduced to music by his elder brother Francisco and entered the study of music at the National Conservatory at age 17. In order to finance his studies, he worked as a jazz pianist, while taking courses such as harmony, counterpoint and analysis (also called musical forms). He was recognized in his early ‘20’s for his ability to do sight reading at the piano.  In 1932 he was invited to join the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico (OSM) as a percussionist, and shortly thereafter was introduced to Aaron Copland by Carlos Chavez, the conductor of the Symphony Orchestra.

Moncayo’s Huapango was premièred on 15 August 1941, at the Palace of Fine Arts by the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico conducted by Carlos Chávez. That summer, and probably thanks to the recommendations of Chávez and Copland, Moncayo was granted scholarships from the Rockefeller Foundation to study at the Berkshire Music Institute, known today as the Tanglewood Music Center.  During the same period, Moncayo had the opportunity to meet two fellow composers and conductors who attended the courses at Berkshire that summer, Lukas Foss and twenty-four-year-old Leonard Bernstein. He was in good company.

Moncayo’s Huapango, a bright, fast-moving symphonic piece that is occasionally included in Latin selections by American orchestras, is based on a typical Mexican folk dance. The word huapango may be a corruption of the Nahuatl word cuauhpanco that literally means “on top of the wood”, alluding to a wooden platform on which dancers make zapateado dance steps.

- Jim Adams


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