The last time Max Lifchitz performed in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, he was at the piano, delivering a characteristically diverse and eye-opening program of 20th century Mexican composers including works by Carlos Chavez, Manuel Enriquez, Manuel M. Ponce, Maria Teresa Prieto, Silvestre Revueltas, and an eclectically lively partita by Brian Banks along with a pastorale partita of his own. Much of the bill could be characterized as the Second Viennese School gone south of the border. Tuesday night, Lifchitz conducted his North/South Chamber Orchestra in a matter-of-factly transcendent program of contemporary compositions.
Katherine Hoover‘s South Zephyr was an evocatively buoyant, gently kinetic evocation of an enveloping, warmly comforting wind from the tropics, Lisa Hansen’s flute afloat on a lush bed of strings. Victor Kioulaphides‘ Summer Concerto, a string piece, was the big hit with the audience with its misterioso pulse, dynamic shifts, subtly flamenco-tinged interlude and allusions to Andalucia and the Middle East.
Alla Pavlova‘s Concertino came across as the great lost Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #5, or something from late Tschaikovsky. It didn’t have the virtuoso piano passages of Rachmaninoff, but it was packed with the kind of direct, emphatic, angst-ridden, stunningly memorable riffage that defines that composer’s work. And it featured plenty of original tropes as well, most notably the shivery string passages in the opening segment as a backdrop to Helen Lin’s icepick piano and Mioi Takeda’s steely but cantabile violin.
Soloist Edmundo Ramirez brought a graceful but plaintive, sometimes vividly aching edge and an acerbic tone to the night’s most stunning work, Anna Veismane‘s Concerto for Viola d’Amore. A tone poem, more or less, its tectonic sheets shifted slowly and methodically and grew more haunting as it went on, building a surreal, dangerously otherworldly mood with close harmonies from the strings. Lifchitz concluded with his own song suite, Forget Me Not, sung with deadpan wit by soprano Carol Wilson. Over the lilting sway of the strings, Wilson managed to keep a straight face through a long interlude about a potato, something some of the audience could do but others could not. It made for comic relief in the wake of a lot of searing emotion.
Lifchitz’s agenda with his long-running North/South Consonance concerts is to cross-pollinate on a global level and promote the work of composers from across the Americas alongside their counterparts from literally everywhere else. It’s an ambitious project, and something to keep an eye on if first-rate new works (and plenty of older rarities) by under-the-radar composers are your thing.
There’s a backstory here, and it’s an encouraging, even paradigm-shifting one. Conductor Alondra de la Parra and the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas’ new album Mi Alma Mexicana not only reached #1 on the Mexican classical charts, it also reached #2 on the pop charts there. Ironically, that may not be quite as extraordinary an achievement as it would have been ten years ago. But it is compelling evidence that even in the age of downloading, people are still willing to pay for quality. The album seeks to revive interest in pieces by Mexican orchestral composers from the past 150 years or so. Last night, de la Parra and the orchestra treated a sold-out Alice Tully Hall crowd to a handful, opening with Carlos Chavez’ Caballos de Vapor. De La Parra introduced it as “the horsepower suite,” a ballet whose original costumes were created by Diego Rivera. Rarely recorded or played in concert, it’s a richly dynamic piece that deserves to be vastly better known. The intricately bustling mechanics of the first movement grew to a sort of dance of the behemoths, and it was here where de la Parra’s emotional intelligence and meticulous approach really struck home: the crescendo could have become florid, but she wouldn’t let it go completely over the top. Was this supposed to be satirical, a cautionary tale about falling too deeply in love with the Industrial Revolution? Certainly the mournful intensity of the dance themes that followed – a brooding Mexican sandunga that brilliantly mimicked a guitar timbre, a troubled, languid, pulseless tango and a bolero that went from shadowy to almost sepulchral – could be interpreted as its aftereffects. The ensemble played singlemindedly, de la Parra always maintaining plenty of open space for the many brief solo spots, the orchestra parting the waters with split-second efficiency when the moment arrived.
Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was a case of lyrics surpassing the quality of the music beneath. Actor Chris Noth (of Sex and the City fame/notoriety) gave Abraham Lincoln’s own words of warning and love for democracy the gravitas the orchestra couldn’t, although they did the best they could with what they had. De la Parra did the opposite of what she’d just done so well with the Chavez as they latched onto pretty much anything of even remote interest in this obviously hastily cobbled together, western movie-tinged, folk song-speckled tone poem by the Norman Rockwell of 20th century music.
The concluding piece, Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra was a showstopper, every bit as extraordinary as de la Parra hinted it would be. The conductor emphasized how this orchestra’s mission is to promote composers and soloists from the whole of North America, and sardonically noted the American composer’s mastery of “a form several composers have tried and done successfully, ha ha, some of them…” Percussive as the work is, it paired off terrifically with the Chavez. The first movement built to brisk, intense, percussive yet distantly suspenseful unison riffage; the second, seemingly a tribute to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, paired off the basses and violins playfully as lushness and pleasing, Romantically tinged rondo themes made their appearance. Then the fun began, a series of motifs with a quiet nocturnal flair, some of them wryly swooping, moving through the orchestra, building to lush sostenuto brass passages that wouldn’t have been out of place in Brahms. The unselfconscious sense of fun returned in even fuller effect with the fourth movement and its long, gently unstoppable crescendo for percussion, timpani and kettledrums that owed more to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix (Moby Dick and Machine Gun, specifically) than anything else. De la Parra held the careening polyrhythms tightly to the rails as they rattled through to a triumphant drum roll of a conclusion. The crowd reacted with the delirious enthusiasm of a rock audience: on their feet, they literally wouldn’t let the orchestra go, eventually rewarded for their strenuous efforts with Huapango, by José Pablo Moncayo Garcia, a playful, increasingly ornately arranged suite of Mexican folk songs and then Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, variations on a genuinely haunting, ballet-tinged, minor-key theme in the same vein as the well-known folk ballad La Llorona.