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MUSIC REVIEW : Mayan a Perfect Setting for Latino Chamber Ensemble

January 27, 1994|DANIEL CARIAGA | TIMES MUSIC WRITER

Warrior priests in stone decorate the exterior of the Mayan Theater, a still-handsome downtown Los Angeles relic built in 1927. Over the decades, the ornate auditorium has been variously a legit theater, a movie palace and an elegant purveyor of Spanish-language films. In the 1990s, its theater seats removed, it is an attractive and apparently thriving nightclub.

Tuesday night, however, it became a concert hall again. Under auspices of the Da Camera Society, the Chamber Music in Historic Sites series took over the theater to present, within architectural confines inspired by Mayan temple sites at Toltec and Palenque, the contemporary ensemble Hecho en Mexico. Not surprisingly, given the track record of impresario MaryAnn Bonino, site and sound fit perfectly.

Hecho en Mexico, usually a quartet that sings and plays 20th-Century as well as historical instruments, became on this occasion a 10-member ensemble performing mostly the compositions of one of its founders, Germaine Franco.

Franco's new, half-hour entertainment, "Quinto Sol--The Fifth Sun" a musical retelling of, in her description, the Legend of the Suns "as translated from the Annals of Cuauhtitlan, in the Codice Chimalpopoca," is collage-like, fragmented but engrossing.

It utilizes an abundance of Meso-American musical resources in instruments like water drums, conch shells, clay flutes, bone rasps, rain sticks, turtle shells and deer hoofs, combining them with a contemporary battery: guitars, drums, woodwinds and percussion, as well as, of course, singing. Unobtrusive narration and canny pacing maintain the work's continuity.

Talented but not strikingly original, Franco seems to possess compositional gifts more attuned to synthesis than to new directions. Her commercial side emerged in the following set of seven pieces, played by splinter ensembles from the larger group. Here, the composer's eclecticism drew from many 20th-Century pop sources, with mostly successful results.

Among the colleagues, co-founder and guitarist Federico Ramos, guitarist Ramon Stagnaro, singer Ali Olma, saxophonist and flutist Alberto Wing, and flutist and percussionist Sergio Gonzalez made crucial and admirable musical contributions.

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