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Westerville Symphony Celebrates Cinco De Mayo With Music By Mexican Composers

color photo of rehearsal of Westerville Symphony
Classical guitarist Karl Wohlwend rehearses with the Westerville Symphony.

Nearing the end of an entire season devoted to Music Beyond Our Borders, one local orchestra is gearing up for a south-of-the-border fiesta – and you’re invited.

The Westerville Symphony presents ¡Cinco de Mayo!, a concert of gems by Mexican composers and one U.S. composer inspired by Mexico, Sunday, May 5 at 5 p.m. in the Fritsche Theatre at Otterbein University’s Cowan Hall.

Westerville Symphony Music Director Peter Stafford Wilson will lead the orchestra and guitar soloist Karl Wohlwend in works by Mexican composers Manuel Ponce, Arturo Márquez, Carlo Chávez and José Moncayo, and in U.S. composer Aaron Copland’s tone poem El Salón México, inspired by a visit to a Mexico City dance hall.

“You’ll definitely be tapping your toes,” Wilson said of the concert’s program in a recent phone interview.

¡Cinco de Mayo! marks the third and final performance on the orchestra’s 2018-19 Ron Lykins Masterworks Series. The concert will also be the first time the Westerville Symphony has devoted an entire program to Mexican and Mexican-inspired music.

“It’s rare that I actually dedicate an entire program to a single genre or style or nationality, but Cinco de Mayo certainly presented itself as an opportunity to do so,” Wilson said.

When Wilson started planning the program for the Westerville Symphony’s ¡Cinco de Mayo! concert, he reached first for the work of a U.S. composer -  Aaron Copland’s now iconic El Salón México.

El Salón México, of course, was one of the first pieces that I wrote down when I started the broad strokes of this program,” Wilson said.

Copland’s tone poem gives what Wilson describes as a “fiendishly difficult,” though vivid, musical depiction of a Mexican dance hall. But some of the Mexican composers on the program, Wilson says, more naturally go about evoking Mexico and “Mexicanness” in sound.

photo of Peter Stafford Wilson
Credit facebook.com/WestervilleSymphony
Peter Stafford Wilson, Westerville Symphony music director

“Copland worked very hard to create what we think of as a Mexican sound,” he said. “And yet the two primary composers on the program who were Mexican – Marquez and (José) Moncayo – both did it very naturally.” 

Arturo Marquez’s Danzón No. 2 is an orchestral fantasy that unfolds in increasingly fiery episodes over a sultry rhythm in the claves – wooden dowels traditionally used in Spanish and Latin music – reminiscent of bossa nova.

Moncayo’s Huapango features a familiar Mexican tune and is full of rhythmic and harmonic interplay that give the piece an unmistakably Mexican feel.

Huapango is … a very versatile work that really does sort of create that atmosphere of Mexican music,” Wilson said.

That work will stand in stark contrast to Carlos Chávez’s First Symphony, Sinfonia de Antígona, which Chavez composed in 1933 as music to accompany a production of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone.

Chavez’s work relies less on traditional Mexican dance rhythms and modally inflected melodies, and more on the carrying out of a modernist musical language in intense, dramatic-sounding structures.

“It’s a short symphony, one movement, huge orchestration, but very emotionally charged,” Wilson said. “It also, I think, is probably the intellectual challenge of the program. And part of the reason is that it really does not sound 'Mexican,' like Huapango or El Salón México.”

It was actually guitarist Karl Wohlwend who suggested programming Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del Sur (Concerto of the South) on the Westerville Symphony’s ¡Cinco de Mayo! concert.

Wohlwend, who performed Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez – arguably the most frequently performed guitar concerto – with the Westerville Symphony several years ago, first heard Ponce’s Concierto del Sur 25 or 30 years ago, when a friend played for him the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia’s recording of the work.

“I thought, this is wonderful. Why don’t people play this more often?” Wohlwend said.

Wohlwend took the Cinco de Mayo theme for Sunday’s concert as an opportunity to perform a guitar concerto that, he says, deserves to be performed more often than it is, and that blends Spanish flamenco and Moorish rhythms, melodic influences and guitar techniques in a unique modern musical language.

Wilson says Sunday’s concert is intended to spotlight these and other influences that have given Mexican music its richness.

“We need to examine the very serious contributions that Mexican composers of several generations have made to music history,” Wilson said. “I think this program really is indicative of that wealth of great music.”

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.