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Concert Review: Rain Gods and Singing Devils

By Superconductor
Gustavo Dudamel brings South American choral works to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: Rain Gods and Singing Devils

Depiction of the Mayan water god, Chaac.

Conducting sensation Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela concluded their three-day stand at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night with a program that offered a two South American choral works along with part of a new composition by Argentinean composer Esteban Benzecry.
Mr. Benzecry, who attended the concert, dedicated his Rituales Amerindos, which he describes as a "Pre-Columbian triptych" to Mr. Dudamel, who has conducted the complete work elsewhere. For this concert, the conductor chose Chaac (Mayan Water God), the central section that depicts the worship of the elephant-nosed deity of rain and thunder in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.
This slow, contemplative movement incorporates exotic percussion to evoke the rituals of Mayan water worship. The whoosh-and-patter of a rain stick is echoed by deep grumbles in the double basses and contrabassoon. Mr. Benzecry calls for a huge orchestra, but uses his resources in a spare, economical way. The result is fascinating, and contemplative, and left this listener wanting to hear the whole piece. (It hasn't been released on disc, but the work is available on YouTube, conducted by Mr. Dudamel.)
Although Mr. Benzecry's work was just ten minutes in length, the members of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, required for the next work on the program, were left offstage. This resulted in a lengthy pause, as choristers slowly filed into their seats to waves of scant applause from the house. Finally they were all settled.
The next work was Chôros No. 10 by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Evoking the music of urban street entertainers in the composer's native Brazil, this work overlays strings, brass and percussion. Choristers sing syllabic noises instead of words. Eventually, the big tune is overlaid, in this case the popular Brazilian song "Rasga O Coracão." While Mr. Dudamel and his forces performed the work with power and enthusiasm, the composition itself does not reach an effective climax--it merely stops.
For the final work of the evening, Mr. Dudamel chose one of the most popular compositions from his native Venezuela. Cantata Criolla by Antonio Éstevez is a South American take on the Faust legend, pitting the Devil in a song contest against Florentino, a llanero (plainsman) with an extraordinary singing voice. Though much of the work is choral (supported by inventive orchestration) the two duellists were portrayed by soloists.
Tenor Idwer Álvarez sang the part of Florentino with a pleasing, heroic voice. Mr. Álvarez has sung this part 117 times, and his long experience with the role was apparent as he moved his arms and acted the role of the challenged plainsman. The Devil was portrayed by baritone Gaspar Colón, whose dark suit and impressive whiskers made him look suitably satanic. His black-tinged instrument also suited the part, as he made his assault upon Mr. Álvarez' soul, one couldn't help but root for him a little.
Mr. Éstevez' work is fairly conventional, with musical ideas audibly lifted from Richard Strauss, Carl Orff and several Puccini operas. (The composer abandoned this style for electronic music soon afterwards.) The song contest itself becomes a game of who can sing faster, with the Devil and Florentino picking up the last line of each other's stanzas.  Still, the two singers played their parts with gusto, egged on by Mr. Dudamel and the superb support of the Westminster singers.
The concert ended with a rapturous reception from the Carnegie Hall crowd, including the waving of three yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags. Mr. Dudamel and his players responded with a repriset of two of the previous night's three encores: Leonard Bernstein's Mambo from West Side Story and the Venezuelan anthem "Alma Llanera" by Pedro Elías Gutiérrez.

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