Dallas Symphony concert inspired by the revolutionary figure who led the Mexican slave revolt

In 1570, Yanga, an enslaved and rumored African royal descendant, led a slave revolt and formed a colony with followers in the mountains near Veracruz, Mexico. It was the first colony of freed African slaves in North America and successfully resisted the advances of the Spanish.

This little-known story is the subject of an exhibit organized by the Latino Arts Project, currently on display at the African American Museum in Dallas. Complementing the exhibit, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra presented a concert Tuesday night at the Meyerson Symphony Center that explored the connections between African and Latin American music. The guest artists were the Mexico-based Tambuco Percussion Ensemble, friends of former DSO music director Eduardo Mata, to whom the concert was dedicated.

by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz Range, for choir, percussion quartet and orchestra, sets to music a Spanish libretto by Santiago Martín Bermúdez which pays homage to the revolutionary spirit of the eponym. He also weaves a song from the Congo. In a spoken introduction, Ortiz referred to the work as a “periphrase” for a future opera.

In a single movement over 17 minutes, the music features energetic Latin rhythms, with prominent brass and percussion. The percussion quartet unleashes a storm with a battery of African instruments, beating hand drums, banging wooden sticks and producing creaking and shaking sounds with dried gourds. The chorus often weaves together rhythmically with percussion and orchestra, but also shares thoughtful passages, where brightly layered chords are darkened by tight dissonances.

The Dallas Chamber Choir joins the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble in Gabriela Ortiz’s “Yanga” at the Meyerson Symphony Center.(Allison Slomowitz / Special Contributor)

With Tambuco in the foreground and the orchestration loaded, the Dallas Chamber Choir, prepared by director Jon L. Culpepper, struggled to be heard in the dynamics above a mezzo-forte. When audible, the band provided polished contributions, except for occasional sour chords. Supertitles could have helped the audience to follow the text more easily.

Led by deputy conductor Maurice Cohn, an American in his twenties, the DSO provided crisp rhythms and vibrant orchestral colors. Ortiz joined the orchestra to warm applause.

Barranco, an arrangement of traditional Afro-Peruvian music for percussion quartet by Tambuco member Alfredo Bringas, takes place in two episodes introduced by guitar solos. The percussionists work out the ideas of the guitar in festive sound barrages, drawing all sorts of articulations from cajons – box-like hand drums – going back and forth with ideas and building thundering sounds.

Tambuco Percussion Performer Ensemble
Tambuco Percussion Ensemble performs ‘Barranco’, an arrangement of traditional Afro-Peruvian music by Tambuco member Alfredo Bringas, at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Allison Slomowitz / Special Contributor)

The biggest benefit of the rest of the program, for the orchestra alone, was Cohn’s effective leadership. He skillfully led the DSO through the rhythmic complexities of Four Dances from estancia, by 20th-century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. Here and at Duke Ellington Solitude, arranged for string orchestra, celesta and harp by Morton Gould, Cohn also persuaded finely lyrical playing. Silvestre Reveueltas, Mexican composer of the 20th century Sensemayainspired by a ritual slaying of a snake, was deservedly dark and mysterious.

With limited rehearsal time, there were naturally some slippages in intonation and coordination. And the final dance of the Ginastera was sometimes more harassed than exciting. Still, Cohn proved to be a model of clarity and economy, just what this program needed.

In a subscription-free concert designed to bring newcomers to the Meyerson, the audience was notably younger and more diverse than usual, including many Spanish speakers. They were also visibly excited to be there. But is there a way to politely discourage conversations as well as the taking of photos and videos during concerts?

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