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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel makes a case for 'Cantata Criolla'

April 30, 2010 |  1:27 pm
Wikipedia, that good guide to prominence, provides a proper biography of Ramón Antonio Gerard Estévez, a.k.a. Martin Sheen, with many references, links and a full filmography. But Antonio Estévez, a.k.a. chopped liver, gets next to nothing. Buried within a handful of short, halfhearted paragraphs is a casual mention that his “Cantata Criolla” is “perhaps the most best-known nationalistic Venezuelan composition.” 

Gustavo Dudamel has said that from the day he signed his contract as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic his first priority was to perform “Cantata Criolla” during his first season here. He has used it as the centerpiece of his first L.A. festival, Americas and Americans. And Thursday night he made a doubly compelling case for “Cantata Criolla” through a dynamic performance and through a sophisticated and elaborate multimedia program at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Call it reinventing the symphony orchestra, 2.0.

Following in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s footsteps of innovative concert stagings by Peter Sellars, Dudamel brought in Venezuelan director Alberto Arvelo to provide a film to be shown along with the cantata and also produce a staging. That was only the beginning.

Estévez is credited with having created the Venezuelan national musical style around the same time Aaron Copland and Alberto Ginastera were doing something similar in the U.S. and Argentina. “Cantata Criolla” -- a half-hour score written in 1954 for orchestra, chorus and tenor and baritone soloists -- was thus sensibly prefaced Thursday by short Copland and Ginastera works.  Arvelo created a unified 65-minute program played without pause. He also projected effective images in interesting spots on the walls of Disney’s lobbies.

The text for “Cantata Criolla” is an important Venezuelan poem by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba, the director’s grandfather, that celebrates the dusty, perilous, mysterious llanos (plains) of Venezuela and presages magical realism with a singing contest between a brazen coplero (a troubadour of the llanos) and the devil. Arvelo invited the noted Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel,” “21 Grams,” “Amores Perros”) to contribute a companion poem, which was given a dramatic, contrapuntal incantation by Helen Hunt, Edgar Ramirez and Erich Wildpret.

James F. Ingalls designed breathtaking lighting. Two costume designers are listed, one for the vocal soloists, another for the startling virgins who appear out of nowhere and the choruses (the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela). Helen Hunt’s jeweler was left out of the program book but acknowledged in an insert.

The Philharmonic may have gone overboard, media-wise, but not by much. Arriaga’s “América,” a blazing inferno of pan-American voices and images, proved exciting on the page yet some of its familiar lines sounded hackneyed when read aloud, despite the excellence of the actors. The final five glowing minutes of Copland’s “Tender Land” Suite, which opened the program, also seemed slightly trite, since that glow wasn’t prepared by the 15 minutes of the suite that were excised.

Dud But “Estancia” Dances from Ginastera’s gaucho ballet, and a Dudamel specialty, more than made up for the weak start. The Philharmonic players did not stand up and dance their way through the final show-stopping mambo as the conductor’s muchachos do back home. But they came close once Dudamel threw a musical power switch and zapped the orchestra with near lethal doses of electricity. Ingalls bathed the hall and the blank film screen in the yellow of a late-afternoon sun.

“Cantata Criolla” thus followed a hard act to follow. It begins with a long section for chorus and orchestra depicting Florentino, the coplero, through Torrealba’s high-flung verse. Estévez’s original musical style is cinematically narrative, recognizably Latin while also attending to European and American Modernist currents, along with hints of Puccini and Carl Orff. It all works.

The second and third parts are the singing contest between Florentino and the devil. Tenor Aquiles Machado and baritone Gaspar Colón Moleiro were like toreador and bull, gouging and stabbing with sparkling self-confidence through song. Both were terrific, creating a high sense of drama. The sheer immediacy of their singing, of the sensational choruses and the orchestra all but argued against addition of staging and a film.

But despite the complex components involved with Arvelo’s concept, he kept his media remarkably unobtrusive, focusing on the music and text. The screen was empty, but for subtitles, as often as it was enticingly filled with elegant Venezuelan images. Ingalls’ lighting created a sense of occasion. As for the virgins, I don’t want to give too much away.

Chad Smith, the Philharmonic’s vice president of artistic planning, told the audience at the pre-concert talk that were the orchestra to do 10 such Americas and Americans festivals, it would still be only scratching the surface. So do 10 festivals. The surface is our American musical skin, and no conductor has a better baton for such scratching than Dudamel.

-- Mark Swed

“Cantata Criolla,” 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Limited ticket availability. (323) 850.200 or

Photos: (top) "Cantata Criolla" at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night; (below) Gustavo Dudamel. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times