It isn’t often that a symphony orchestra can put on a powerful performance that feels unfamiliar. Most people can think back to the first concert that made them fall in love with orchestral music, but how often do they get to experience that feeling for a second time? For me, rarely. Most of the best performances I can remember are those that featured stellar performances of pieces I already knew by heart.
Unfamiliar music typically gets sequestered to the first half of programs in a balancing act of old and new, boundary-pushing contemporary and crowd-pleasing classic, the healthy entree and the sugary dessert.
At their Oct. 27 concert in Ann Arbor, Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería boldly programmed a concert of four lesser-known works, each composed by Latin American composers in the past century. Some in the audience were already familiar with the music, but to the typical symphony-goers, the repertoire provided an opportunity and a challenge for the orchestra to make a lasting first impression.
Conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto was aware of these stakes: addressing the audience in English after the first piece, he pointed out that each piece on the program was being performed at a University Musical Society concert for the first time. But he and the orchestra were up to the task and performed with genuine excitement after verbally introducing the audience to the new music with professional stoicism.
To open the concert, the orchestra performed Kauyumari by Gabriela Ortiz, a 2021 composition that was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Despite beginning in musical simplicity — the piece started as a single sustained F in the low voices — the piece brilliantly introduced the musicianship of Minería, who immediately created an enveloping and engaging texture. When the maracas and offstage trumpets interjected into the ambient texture, they immediately commanded attention in a way that didn’t disrupt the meditative atmosphere that the strings created. As the piece progressed, it gradually intensified, evolving from a tense drone to a carefree jubilation built on a 6/8 meter that alternated in feel with every bar.
Following this, the orchestra performed Carlos Chávez’s Symphony No. 2, a brief piece built on a diverse selection of indigenous Mexican folk melodies. Fittingly, the percussion for the piece included four traditional Mexican percussion instruments, which furthered rooted the piece in tradition and blended seamlessly with the orchestra. The symphony shone as it abruptly shifted from different scenes using distinct instrumental combinations: The lyrical woodwind lines created a pastoral mood, whereas the mixture of muted brass, harp, pizzicato bass and percussion evoked a more bustling urban environment.
The only piece on the program not by a Mexican composer was Gabriela Montero’s Concierto Latino, which was performed with Montero herself on piano. Hailing from Venezuela, Montero is an outstanding performer and composer with mastery of European classical music and creativity to push boundaries as a composer. But for reasons beyond her or the orchestra’s control, the performance got off to a rough start — the piano bench on stage was not the correct height, leading to a several-minute delay before the piece could begin. For the average person, the only thing more terrifying than performing a demanding, self-composed piano concerto in front of thousands of people is having to spend even more time on stage, waiting in anticipation. But Montero was completely unfazed: Ever the improviser, she played the “Jeopardy!” theme song during the awkward pause and proceeded to deliver a confident and emotive performance of her concerto. Even though the piece leaned heavily into dissonant half-step intervals, it never felt esoteric, thanks to familiar reggaeton-esque rhythms in the cellos and Montero’s emotive cadenzas, especially in the second movement.
To close the program, the orchestra performed Silvestre Revueltas’s La Noche de las Mayas, a four-movement symphonic suite composed to accompany a 1939 film of the same title. Opening with huge orchestral chords, the piece had a nostalgic, old-movie-music feeling, like watching a lengthy opening credits sequence to a classic film like “Vertigo” or “Lawrence of Arabia.” Following a heavy opening movement, the piece took a more lighthearted direction with a mariachi-sounding movement that showcased the trumpets and was capped off by a short but effective tuba solo, a single low note that earned chuckles from the audience. The third movement leaned heavily into the serenity of night with a beautiful transition from a longing, Dorian-mode opening to a peaceful G major section featuring passionate flute and oboe solos. As captivating and varied as the first three movements were, the final movement was the highlight of the entire night. It incorporated an extended percussion break that featured the entire section as soloists. Throughout the section, the energy in the auditorium was palpable in a way I had never experienced before, from the beaming smile of the timpanist to the last rows of the audience.
It’s tempting to fall back on European analogies when describing Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería’s performance and the music they played: To compare Montero’s improvisation to a Bach keyboard invention, to compare Chávez’s ethnomusicological influence to Béla Bartók’s interest in folk songs, to compare the La noche de las Mayas to Mahler’s “Symphony of the Night.” In a sense, these comparisons are flattering, and technically accurate, but they fail to do justice to what Minería achieved in Hill Auditorium. Their performance wasn’t outstanding because it was reminiscent of European classical music — it was outstanding because every musician on stage shared a goal of making powerful music together, and they emitted a radiant energy that captivated every member of the audience, regardless of the musical journeys that led them to Hill that night.
Still, there is one Eurocentric analogy that approximates the emotional impact of Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería’s performance: the 1940 Disney animated film “Fantasia.” As conductor Leopold Stokowski, silhouetted by a giant red fireball, guides the Philadelphia Orchestra through a labyrinth of applied harmonies and musical sequences to the apocalyptic cadence of Bach’s D minor “Toccata and Fugue,” his angular gestures not only lead the orchestra but open a door for the audience to a world of orchestral music. I went through that door when I was younger, and I had assumed that that experience was a one-off, that no music could ever feel that new and exciting again. But watching Carlos Miguel Prieto cut off Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería for the final time with a triumphant sweep of his arm and close of his fist, I once again felt that excitement of finding something incredible for the first time. I’m sure others around me shared that feeling.
Daily Arts Writer Jack Moeser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.