Beautiful melodies, exciting technical challenges for the soloist, lush interludes in the orchestra, and an ever-changing pulse that dances and stomps and even slows down to pray - the new "Fandango" by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez delivers all the elements of a successful violin concerto: something musicians will want to play and audiences will want to hear.
Thanks to violinist Anne Akiko Meyers the piece already has legs, just a year after its premiere. Meyers asked Marquez to write the piece in 2018, beginning an arduous process that lasted through the pandemic and culminated in a world premiere with the LA Phil in August 2021. Since then, Meyers has performed with the Santa Barbara Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Princeton Symphony and Tucson Symphony.
On Thursday, she gave an energetic and committed performance with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic - the first of four performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Others are tonight, Saturday and Sunday; click here for more information.) After that, Meyers, Dudamel and the LA Phil will hit the road with the work: on Oct 26 they will play the New York premiere at Carnegie Hall; then on Oct. 28 they will perform the Mexico premiere at Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City.
When Meyers first approached Márquez to write a violin concerto, he already had the outlines in his mind. In fact Márquez, 71, who is well-known for his Danzón No. 2, had been working on the idea for some 20 years. The violin had been his first instrument at age 14, and his father, Arturo Márquez Sr., had been a mariachi violinist. Since childhood, he had been listening to the Mexican "fandango," which was the inspiration for the violin concerto. Meyers's request simply brought that spark back to life.
Thursday's performance served up the concerto like a slow-cooked meal that has brought out all the best flavors in the food. This "new" work bears the maturity of a prolific composer well-versed in the musical traditions of his own culture - as well as experience to change the recipe into something new, in a tasteful and appealing way.
The first movement, "Folia Tropical," begins high on the G string and unfolds in a beautiful melody, which sounded fantastic on in Meyers' hands and on her 1741 "Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesu violin. "Folias" are ancient dances from Portugal or Spain, and the movement also features rhythms based on the Caribbean "clave" and a sort of romantic bolero. For the violinist, these clever and appealing-sounding rhythms are embedded in a thicket of technique: lots of fast spiccato, ricochet, and fingers flying across constant string crossings.
The movement contains a clarinet solo, played beautifully on Thursday by the LA Phil's fantastic associate principal clarinetist, Burt Hara. That solo turns into a dialogue between clarinet and violin soloist.
For much of the movement I was feeling this angular pulse in my body, watching it go through Meyers and the musicians, with my own musician brain madly plotting the rhythms - 3+3+3+3+2+2, yes, I think I've got it! Then I looked up to see Dudamel calmly conducting in 4. I laughed at myself - yes, that math does work!
Toward the end of the first movement was an opulent orchestral interlude - old-fashioned sounding but somehow not out-of-style. It came off as cinematic and a little sultry.
The second movement brought about a calming of the musical heartbeat, a repeated rhythm in three, as the basis for "Plegaria," or "Prayer." Embedded here are rhythms based on the mariachi huapango, Spanish fandango, and chaconne. One of the most appealing moments in this movement was a section with dizzying passagework that Meyers played in a way that felt almost circular.
As Márquez describes it, the "third movement demands great virtuosity from the soloist, and it is the music that I have kept in my heart of decades." He is not kidding about being demanding.
This movement, "Fandanguito," begins with solo violin - an outpouring of bouncing double stops all over the fingerboard, cleverly accented to bring out certain rhythmic patterns. It continues fairly non-stop, presenting various tricks for the violinist and treats for the audience - what a workout. Meyers played it with strength and energy, bringing out the spirit of the rustic "huesteco" violin that it's meant to imitate.
Thursday's performance received a richly-deserved standing ovations, with the composer brought on stage to share the spotlight with Meyers, Dudamel and the LA Phil.
Thursday's concert actually began with "Kauyumari," written in 2021 by Gabriela Ortiz (b. 1964) - a piece so tonal, joyful and happy that it felt like a big musical smile. The hemiola beat pattern remained same throughout the piece - think "I like to be in America" from West Side Story. It featured a full stage of instrumentalists, including a row of brass in the back, allowing for things like trombone slides and a highly climactic ending.
And speaking of climactic endings, the concert concluded with Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3, an exuberant celebration of American victory, aspiration and of course - the spaciousness of wide intervals. That brand of American hope feels like a relic from another century, but Dudamel and the LA Phil made it into a fantastic celebration of that time and that feeling. The final movement is based on Copland's larger-than-life "Fanfare for the Common Man," which burst with energetic sound from the orchestra's brass section and timpanist Joseph Pereira. The evening literally ended on a high note, with a well-deserved standing ovation that lasted long enough for Dudamel to acknowledge every section in this much-extended orchestra.
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