The word “creole” has a range of meanings which shift according to geography. In Latin American countries, it generally means “native” or just simply “ours”. In cuisine, it signifies the fusion of the cooking styles of the colonizers and the colonized. When lingering effects to arm and hand from a fall in December forced Gustavo Dudamel to withdraw from his second week of concerts with the Boston Symphony, the orchestra was forced into creating its own creole fusion. What was to have been a program featuring Latin American composers Dudamel has consistently championed was abandoned with only Antonio Estévez’s Cantata criolla remaining. Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G replaced works by Paul Desenne and Alberto Ginastera while Associate Conductor, Ken-David Masur, led the first half with BSO Choral Director, James Burton, conducting the cantata.

Ken David Masur, Sergio Tiempo and the Boston Symphony
© Roberto Torres

After its initial flash, Masur led Berlioz’s overture at a notably subdued, deliberate pace. Colors eventually brightened and wild, carnival energy surged to the finish, but the transition was not as smooth as it could have been.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major is the polar opposite of the originally scheduled Ginastera. Buoyant and lighthearted, jazz rhythms and whiffs of Gershwin animate its outer movements while the natural flow of the introspective Adagio assai often features the piano alone, as well as in striking dialogue with the English horn. Masur treated the concerto’s opening snap as if someone flicked a switch setting an antic wind-up toy in motion. Sergio Tiempo’s piano introduced itself with a light, delicate touch and the staples of jazz improvisation, glimmering glissandos and arpeggios. Piano and orchestra scampered in a zany give and take culminating in a coda Masur characterized as a cascade of hearty laughter. Challenging passagework of a different kind awaited Tiempo in the second movement with his left hand maintaining a consistent waltz rhythm contrasting the seamless melody flowing from his right. An elastic tempo and fine-tuned dynamics mesmerized and a dreamy quality colored his duet with Robert Sheena’s English horn. The even, closing pianissimo trill rose and dissolved in the air. Then it was off to the races again as the second movement’s reverie ended with another snap and Tiempo and Masur upshifted to the same colorful vitality and virtuosity of the first movement. To compensate for the loss of the Ginastera, Tiempo performed a rugged, macho “Danza del gaucho matrero” from his Three Argentinian Dances as an encore, ending where he had begun in the Ravel, with a glissando, but the robust, cocky one of an outlaw cowboy.

Estévez’s Cantata criolla is a Venezuelan national classic based on another national classic, Alberto Arvelo Torrealba’s poem Florentino y el Diablo, an allegory about the triumph of good over evil in the person of Florentino, a cowboy troubadour of the Venezuelan plains who excels in improvisation. The devil gallops up out of the blue, with the orchestra tolling the Dies irae to identify him, and issues a challenge. Florentino accepts, but this high noon will be decided by words not bullets.

Aquiles Machado, James Burton and Gustavo Castillo
© Roberto Torres

The fruit of Estévez’s studies with Aaron Copland is apparent from the first bars in which he begins to paint the colors and expanse of the Venezuelan llano with the brush of its unique folk music and rhythms. The duel itself is set to the triple meter quick-step of the region and the country’s quintessential dance, the joropo, with the orchestra mimicking at times the traditional accompaniment of four-stringed guitar, small harp, and maracas.

Dudamel guaranteed an idiomatic performance, engaging two soloists steeped in these traditions and incidentally born in the same Venezuelan town, Barquisimeto. Aquiles Machado’s gleaming tenor eventually cut Gustavo Castillo’s suave, overconfident devil down to size. With the final line of each of his sallies, he flashed a sidelong glance and a confident smile at his adversary on the other side of the podium as if to say, “Top that, Mr Dies Irae!” Finally, in a literal Hail Mary play, he and the chorus intoned the medieval Marian litany, Ave maris stella, pummeling the devil into silence.

James Burton had the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in top form. The group seems to be gelling after a period of turnover and transition. It couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time. Whatever rehearsals Burton had with the orchestra were not sufficient to bring out all the aspect’s of the score. For example, Estévez’s Ivesian juxtaposition of the joropo with some slower choral passages was not audible from seats on the floor. Nevertheless, he led a confident and vibrant performance which left this listener wanting to hear the cantata again... and soon.