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Putting an ear to the vision

Two cultures and 20 pieces of visual art have inspired a new orchestral suite.

May 19, 2005|Andy Brumer | Special to The Times

Two years ago, two composers -- one from the United States, the other from Mexico -- met for the first time at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. Their mission: to create an orchestral suite reflecting two cultures and inspired by the museum's permanent collection.

The result is "Dos Visiones," which will receive its U.S. premiere by the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra at the Terrace Theater on Saturday. The composition is coupled with a video of works from "Dos Visiones/Two Visions," an exhibition of 20 paintings and mixed-media works at the museum.

"There's not enough of an emphasis placed on the rich and positive dialogue between Latin America and the U.S. in general and in the arts in particular," museum director Gregorio Luke says.

"For example, few people know that Jackson Pollock was part of the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros' artists' workshop in New York City. Faulkner greatly influenced the magical realism of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who like Marquez and Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in literature, took inspiration from Walt Whitman."

The concept for the project originated in late 2001 out of discussions between Luke, Long Beach Symphony Orchestra music director Enrique Arturo Diemecke and executive director Jack Fishman. While they shared a mutual goal of growing each institution's audiences, they also wanted to create a work that would shed a positive light on the historical cross-fertilization of U.S. and Latin American cultures.

The Long Beach Symphony Orchestra and the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico jointly commissioned the work, with additional funds from the American Composers Forum.

The next step was to pick the composers. Robert Maggio of Lambertville, N.J., got the assignment by winning a competition judged by the Long Beach musicians. His counterpart, Ana Lara of Mexico City, was handpicked by Diemecke.

Lara and Maggio had never met or even heard a note of each other's work before agreeing to the project. But in January 2003, they convened at the museum, where they decided to separate the art collection into three categories -- nationalism, magical realism and humor. They planned to create a movement to coincide with each theme, which the orchestra would perform in an alternating fashion as a six-movement suite.

"We each then went back home and began writing and e-mailing each other files of what we had done," Maggio says.

Both artists say they entered the project with a certain amount of apprehension, though Maggio recalls that "after I listened to Ana's music, I thought, 'No problem. Our work is going to complement, not fight with, each other's.' "

"It was an interesting piece to work on, and it was fun to work with Robert, who is such a warm, open and respectful person," Lara says.

She points out that the title "Dos Visiones" accurately describes the project, though not only because she and Maggio negotiated two art forms.

"What you have here are two people from two different countries who are trying to communicate with one another," she says. "Such a dialogue has always been a part of Mexico's and the United States' history together."

The two composers regrouped at the museum in October 2003 to exchange drafts of what they had written so that they could complete their strategy to quote parts of each other's work in their own movements.

While the composers based each of their movements' titles on one painting from the collection, they also selected the painting "Dos Visiones," by contemporary Venezuelan artist Wladimir Zabaleta, as the emblem for the project.

A symbolic celebration of the inner and outer worlds, the piece presents a portrait of doll-like children apparently lost in dreams with their eyes tightly closed. However, one young girl stares with wide-eyed wonder and a worldly wisdom beyond her years directly into the eyes of the viewer.

Maggio says he and Lara responded strongly to the folk and indigenous elements in the painting and in much of the art they saw in the museum, then allowed them to reverberate in their music.

For example, in his piece on the theme of nationalism, Maggio juxtaposes motifs abstracted from a sunrise song of the Zuni Indians with war tunes taken from the American Revolution. Lara bases her nationalist segment on the sounds and rhythms of an Aztec dance.

To express humor, Lara says she integrated "some of the funny and ironic instrumentation of Silvestre Revueltas, a major early 20th century Mexican composer."

Maggio, in places, riffs ironically on the kind of popular children's nursery tunes, such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb," that he sings to his 4-year-old child.

Diemecke -- who conducted the premiere in October with the Orquesta Sinfonica Nacional de Mexico in Mexico City -- says that the composers each created a work in different though equally dynamic ways.

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