This was an action packed, generous concert by an orchestra unknown to me. The Orquesta Filarmónica de Mexico UNAM is the oldest symphonic ensemble in that country and this was its final concert in a short tour in England. Conducted with energy by Jan Latham-Koenig, it certainly showed us that this was a high quality band with an extensive range of colours and technical ability.

Jan Latham-Koenig © Paul Persky
Jan Latham-Koenig
© Paul Persky

They demonstrated this by the rich and varied programme that was on offer. Kicking off with an effective orchestration of a Buxtehude Chaconne by Carlos Chavez, they showed us a classical accuracy and, as the piece blossomed into its final cadence, a genuine depth of tone. A very effective concert opener it was too.

From the 18th century dressed in 20th century clothing, we rather alarmingly moved to a much more recent piece by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, the Danzón no. 2 composed for this very orchestra in 1994. This piece has become something of hit and has been taken up by other orchestras, but was unknown to me. On first acquaintance, it reminded me of a mix between Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit, Ravel’s Bolero and Malcolm Arnold in chirpy mood. These players certainly knew how to bring its lively rhythms and colourful orchestration to life and then some.

Just as we were getting into foot tapping mode, the mood was change dramatically with an impressive performance of the evergreen The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams – usually the preserve of British orchestras. With the guiding hand of Tasmin Little as the lark, this was a very convincing performance. A magical work that seems to have existed somewhere forever, it can fall flat in performance if it is pushed too hard. Here the tempi were perfectly judge, the string pianissimos were exquisite and the woodwind solos were delicate and responsive. Tasmin Little gave a strong and direct performance to crown it all. She then gave an equally idiomatic performance of a rarity by Holst from 1905,Song of the Night. After the Vaughan Williams, this work seemed rather gawky and half baked. Only in an unexpectedly passionate but very short central section did we hear anything that sounded like the mature Holst.

The ample first half was rounded off with a fabulous performance of the Second Suite from Maneul de Falla’s much loved ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. The orchestra showed us that they could produce a refined and powerful sound, revelling in the composer’s needle sharp orchestration, which rivals Ravel in its sophistication.

The Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin that followed was the low point of the evening. This warhorse of a piece has been given so many performances with real pizzazz that this rather pedestrian affair with soloist Jorge Federico Osorio simply did not approach meet expectations. Osorio seemed to approach the piece like a Brahms concerto, but with lumpy rhythms and obvious tonal shading. Even the orchestra, which had previously seemed alive to a wide range of orchestral styles, failed to swing here.

The concert drew to a close with three short works which ideally placed the orchestra in their Latino roots. Marquez's Conga del Fuego Nuevo set this final group in motion with an uncomplicated, mariachi-inspired style, including some very idiomatic and entertaining harp playing. The Adios Nonino tango by Astor Piazzolla, arranged for saxophone and large orchestra, was an effective piece, excellently played on the alto sax by Rodrigo Garibay. Finally the famous Huapango by José Moncayo saw the orchestra in total unity, producing a sound and an atmosphere that sounded totally authentic.

They rounded off this extremely enjoyable concert with a subtle encore, again unknown to me, but a national favourite in Mexico - Ricardo Castro’s Intermezzo from his opera Atzimba.