Composer Dafnis Prieto

Festival of Latin American Music 1

Teddy Abrams, conductor
People of Earth, guest soloists

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

For a number of years now, Louisville audiences have been treated to the “Festival of New American Music”. Those concerts have introduced composers and new music to our collective minds and ears, such as works by Julia Wolfe and Rachel Grimes, and featuring artists like Michael Cleveland and Jim James, all directing focus on Kentucky roots and jazz influences. But like all good ideas, there is always room to expand. 

When the Louisville Orchestra was given an opportunity to commission a work from MacArthur Foundation Fellow and multi-Grammy-winning composer Dafnis Prieto, the emphasis of this year’s festival shifted to the first “Festival of Latin American Music”. While getting the work of a Grammy-winning composer was a coup in and of itself, it was welcome news that three of the selections that were chosen for the evening were commissioned works by the Louisville Orchestra and two of those works would be world premieres.

The evening began with Alvorada na floresta tropical (Dawn in a Tropical Forest) by Heitor Villa-Lobos. In 1953 the Louisville Orchestra commissioned the piece from Mr. Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s most celebrated composer. While trained in the classical style, Mr. Villa-Lobos used the music of his country as inspiration, such as the birds of the jungles or the songs of the indigenous people. From the first cascading sound of rainsticks in the percussion section, I knew that this piece would be steeped in nature and I was not wrong. As I listened a faint nod to Gustav Holst kept my ears intrigued. Fashioned in what seemed like an A B A form of composition, the first section was light and airy with the aforementioned sounds of nature. As the B section began it seemed like a calm spring shower that turned turbulent, beautiful, and dramatic, then, unexpectedly turn back to the quiet and relaxing A section to the finale. 

Dafnis Prieto’s work Tentación (Temptation) was next, the first of the premiere works that evening. Written as a multi-media piece for singer-dancers, percussion, jazz instruments (mostly brass and drum kit), piano, and orchestral strings, this arrangement , and lucky for us that assistance came from the timba band People of Earth. If you are unfamiliar with timba, it is a Cuban style of music heavily influenced by salsa, folk music, and believe it or not, American Funk, and Jazz. People of Earth are certainly not boxed into just those influences, as they’ve had a brilliant career working with all kinds of musical genres, you can tell where their groove is and Tentación allows them to fly within their comfort zone. 

In the composer’s words “Tentación is a love story, or better said an imaginary love story driven by a powerful law of attraction…. the music reflects in sounds and lyrics two words – real and imaginary – i.e., the real, provoked by the imaginary state.” Ok. Here goes.

The romanticism is certainly there, especially as the viola introduces us to stunning melody, to where the rest of the strings join in and blam here come the indelible sounds of Mr. Prieto’s influences: mambo, jazz improvisation, and Cuban dance. As the vocals began, led by Ivan Llanes and Ashira Mothersil, and paired with the fabulous percussion, brass, electronic bass, and piano, the audience was transported to a hot Havana nightclub. When Mr. Abrams introduced the work, he encouraged people to get up and dance to which a few couples did just that on the side aisles of Whitney Hall as the music certainly had that dance drive. If you weren’t dancing, chances are you were at least swaying in your seat.

The composition is highly spirited and seems like a sprint to the end. It is one continuous flow of music with little breathing room, but here’s the problem I had with it: repetition. There was a repetition of themes, repetition in rhythms, and repetition in vocals. The piece could have used more breaks and slowdown in certain moments as it began to drone on and needed an injection of a new sound. Now, I say this but there were times that a break from the norm occurred such as a delightful what felt improvisational set by pianist Ahmed Alon and trumpeter Raul Rios took a break from blowing and provided a rap that, if my Spanish was correct, included a shoutout to the composer.

Speaking of vocals, when I could hear the singers, their sound was consistent with the styles and influences of music, but for some reason, they were extremely hard to hear, which was a bit disappointing. Even our Mistress of Ceremonies, Karina Barillas, Executive Director of La Casita Center, who played an instrumental role in the culmination of the “Festival of Latin American Music” was muddled and often times inaudible.

In short, Tentación is a good composition and its use of the band People of Earth, who seemed to have a great time interacting with the Orchestra and using the audience to assist with rhythms and chorus, was a great fit, there are a few facets of the work that I believe could be tweaked a bit.

Just when you thought that the fun was over and you were headed to intermission, People of Earth gave us a delightful piece that had a slow jam feel to it with lots of chances for the audience to participate once again. With snapping of fingers and shouts of “Wepa”, that Ms. Barillas had taught us earlier was a Latin way to show approval and appreciation.

The second world premiere of the evening was Fractal isles from Puerto Rico born Angélica Negrón. Using her native land as a backdrop, she incorporates the sounds of nature including indigenous frogs, birds, and the rustling of wind through a forest of trees.

In the notes, Negrón shared that “Fractal Isles is meant to be seen and heard in saturated colored pieces of glass…a prismatic lens that repeats its inflection…inevitably getting lost from the outside in the fantasy of what’s inside.” Honestly, I hear it.

Introspective and tender, it can not be overstated that this piece comes from the heart. As I sat there listening, I couldn’t help but hear a little of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, but all in all, the piece was very new. Aside from the use of the electronic background, other little utilized instrumentation and techniques came into play, such as the use of vibraphone and the plucking of the strings in the finale.

The evening ended not with the work of a Spanish composer, but an international figure nonetheless, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Appropriate as the latest adaptation of the classic musical begins streaming into or homes.

The Overture or Prologue sets the theme and throughout you can hear the familiar melodies, sometimes straight in your face, other times hidden in another thematic motif. Then comes the sumptuous Somewhere that is highlighted by beautiful melodic turns by the violin and horn, played respectively by Gabriel Lefkowitz and Jon Gustely. Quickly moving through to the Scherzo, we arrive at the fun and lively Mambo, except, Saturday’s exclamation of “Mambo” was not as sturdy and exuberant as I have heard from this Orchestra before, but still, it was audible and impactful. The Cha-Cha was danceable with a hook that is hard to get out of one’s head that then leads to the romantic Meeting Scene that includes exquisite string work. In Cool Fugue and Rumble the musicians truly captured the tension of impending violence. And when the fighting ends and a lover is lost, Teddy motioned to the cellos and bass to give him all they’ve got in the Finale.

With the conclusion of the first part of the Louisville Orchestra’s first “Festival of Latin American Music” I can truthfully say that I am very much looking forward to part two and hope that this celebration is a regular part of the rotation going forward.

Bravo a Todos!!!

Festival of Latin American Music 1

March 5, 2022

Part 2 of the festival follows on February 15

Louisville Orchestra
Kentucky Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.