The BSO Tells the Best Stories in Scene Change

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Alejandro Gomez Guillen, BSO Artistic Director and Conductor

Once again, the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra is changing up the way we think about symphonic music. Their most recent show, Scene Change: Untold Musical Stories of Latin America was a lush celebration of the numerous riches contained in the archives of the Latin American Music Center (LAMC) and Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.

The collaboration between the BSO and the LAMC created a beautiful program that changed the way I understood Latin Music. I will admit that I know little about Latin symphonic music. Like most people, I tend to associate the term Latin American music with the traditional street or dance music that surrounded me when I would visit places like San Antonio. I envisioned stereotypes like mariachis and salsa dancers, but instead I got a night of wonderfully unique and diverse symphonic orchestrations that ranged from the classical (Bachianas by Adolfo Mejia) to the experimental (Introduccion y Allegro Concertante, Op. 117 by Juan Orrego-Salas) all created and performed with the passion and energy of Latin America.

The main event of the evening was, of course, the world premiere of Juan Orrego-Salas’s Ash Wednesday. Originally written in 1989, Salas’s composition has never been performed before a live audience due to a number of mishaps, but at the age of 98, Salas was finally able to hear his lovely work performed while surrounded by family and friends.

Salas based this composition on T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name. Written when Eliot was older, Ash Wednesday is a contemplative poem about the nature of faith and belief. Eliot expresses his desires to put his doubt aside and become a true believer through introspective and metaphysical poetic prose for which he is famous. Salas combined selections of the poem with musical orchestration to explore the depths of doubt, the transcendence of faith, and the individual’s struggle to sublimate one to achieve the other. The result was haunting, moving, and beautiful.

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Reader Tony Brewer and Soprano Alejandra Maritinez on stage for Salas’s Ash Wednesday.

Prior to song’s first performance, Tony Brewer, chair of the Writer’s Guild at Bloomington, took the stage to read a selection from Eliot’s poem. Poetry itself is meant to be heard not just read, so I really enjoyed this part of the show. I love hearing poetry read out loud. Not only did it allow the audience to hear the music present in the original words, but it also gave us the ability to compare the original to Salas’s composition.

The BSO’s performance of the piece was really lovely. Soprano Alejandra Martinez accompanied the BSO, singing Eliot’s words beautifully despite the obvious difficulty of the piece. Martinez, who had joined the BSO in the fall of 2016 for their opera showcase, sang with such emotion and expression that I couldn’t help but tear up a little. Her voice, along with the orchestra’s energetic performance, made Eliot’s poem even more impactful. I could hear the speaker’s struggle with doubt in the looming threat of the low brass, the flittering promise of happiness through faith in flutes and strings, and the speaker’s struggles find her place in the middle of all this noise surrounding her.

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Composer Juan Orrego-Salas accepting applause after the world premiere of Ash Wednesday.

At the completion of the piece, the audience wildly applauded as the BSO presented Salas with a lovely bouquet of flowers. He stood and waved. I was not very far away from Salas; his happiness was practically radiating from him. It was such a special night for Salas, and it was such a special night for all of us that got to celebrate it with him.

Overall, Scene Change was another fantastic example of both the BSO’s commitment to music excellence, especially considering the difficulty of the program. According to Donna Lafferty, Executive Director and orchestra trombonist, not only were these pieces completely new to all of the musicians, but they were also some of the most difficult pieces they have ever had to prepare. The audience could tell, though, that this concert was a labor of love for all involved, and the richness of the program once again exemplified the BSO’s deep commitment to celebrating the cultural treasures of the Bloomington community.

You can experience the excitement and richness of the BSO at their next performance Beasts Among Us on Sunday April 2 at Bloomington High School South. This is a free concert featuring such beastly classics at Peter and the Wolf and The Firebird Suite. The concert will also include a lovely cello performance by Ethan Murphey, this year’s Youth Concerto second place winner.

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