Friday night’s concert ‘Mexican Magic’ was a bit of a mess. It was a highly enjoyable mess, but, nonetheless, it felt as though the organisers had planned three concert programmes, and hadn’t quite made up their minds which one to use. Ostensibly it was a showcase of Mexican classical music – an exciting proposition, as there are many unknown Mexican composers whose works deserve more exposure – including Federico Ibarra and Silvestre Revueltas whose works were represented at the concert. But the inclusion of L’amour! L’amour! … Ah! Lève-toi soleil from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette (seemingly on the grounds that the Mexican composer Ricardo Castro may have listened to it once) and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (on the even-more tenuous grounds that they display a vaguely Latin-American influence) felt extremely odd, and although the history of Mexican music is somewhat chequered, the way the concert lurched from post-serialist modernism to popular dance-hall songs made for a certain amount of grinding of musical synchromesh.
This is not to say that any of the works were badly performed – indeed, the London Philharmonic under Spanish conductor Jaime Martín were on top form, particularly in the brass and percussion departments, on which a great deal of Latin-American repertoire depends heavily. The concert began with Ricardo Castro’s Intermezzo from his opera Atzimba, and the haunting woodwind opening and soaring string tunes, underpinned by harp arpeggios reminded us (without having to make the point by programming the Gounod) of the influence of 19th-century French opera on Mexican music of the same period. The Gounod was given an appropriately sensual performance by the Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, and then the concert changed gear into Federico Ibarra’s 10-minute Sinfonia No. 2, a work clearly influenced by late-20th-century compositional techniques. It was almost minimalist – consisting of a series of insistent three- or four-note themes, hammered out in strident unison over orchestral textures ranging through col legno strings, fluttering woodwind, bowed cymbals and harp glissandi. Again, the LPO performed brilliantly, and attacked the piece with verve and precision.
After this the mood changed once more, and the orchestra was joined again by Arturo Chacón-Cruz for a medley of popular Mexican song from the mid-20th century – María Grever’s Júrame, Consuelo Velásquez’s Bésame Mucho and Augustín Lara’s Granada (to which Chacón-Cruz added, as encores, Lara’s Solamente una vez and Juan Gabriel’s Amor Eterno). Chacón-Cruz sang these in perfectly judged style, with just the right amount of wobble, sob, and heroic top-notes, and the orchestra went into full-on lush Latin ballroom style; the Royal Festival Hall lacked only a disco ball for the full effect to take hold.
Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story occupied the bulk of the concert’s second half. It was a pleasure to hear these performed well – with all of Bernstein’s complex urban rhythms given lively attention – but, as mentioned above, it was difficult to see what place the work had in the concert. The ‘serious’ piece in the second half was Silvestre Revueltas’s Sensemayá, an angst-ridden futuristic piece whose insistent syncopated ‘factory’ rhythm continued throughout, with counterpoint provided by staccato brass chords and short, angry themes in the strings. The concert finished with Arturo Márquez’ breathtaking Danzón No. 2 – a Latin/jazz fantasy that alternated piano-and-violin blues intervals with romping passages for full orchestra and percussion, and had both audience and orchestra alike moving to the insistent Latin pulse.