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Music of the Americas: Mexico Now Concerts, Modernworks, The Americas Society, New York City, 8th November 2004 (BH)

Gabriela Lena Frank: Las Sombras de los Apus (1999)
Gabriela Lena Frank: Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout (2001)
Alejandro Escuer: El Arco de Encina (2004, World Premiere)
Mario Lavista: Cuaderno de viaje (1989)
Mario Lavista: Reflejos de la noche (1984)

Madeleine Shapiro, Director/cello
Airi Yoshioka, violin
Andrea Schultz, violin
Veronica Salas, viola
Eliot Bailen, cello
Adam Friedberg, cello
Matt Goeke, cello

Your average classical listener would probably never suspect that South America is home to the kind of experiments that Madeleine Shapiro presented last night with her group Modernworks, and that implied education was but one of many virtues in a stimulating program with the ensemble's fine musicians in exemplary form. Shapiro has a well-earned reputation for unearthing little-known composers who deserve wider exposure, and that was certainly the case last night.

I'd heard the group perform Las Sombras de los Apus (The Shadows of the Apus) several years ago, but this felt even more gutsy and incisive - a strong argument for giving contemporary works time to gel, and then giving them a second hearing. Scored for four cellos, the work opens with a unison note that soon splits apart into minor seconds, and rapidly escalates into violent spasms before eventually ebbing into an icy stasis. Ms. Frank gives the musicians quite a workout, incorporating all manner of contemporary string techniques to create a vivid picture of the apus "unleashing an avalanche," to quote Ms. Shapiro's program notes. (Apus are minor divinities, according to Quechua mythology.) The four cellists, Eliot Bailen, Adam Friedberg, Matt Goeke and Ms. Shapiro, explored Ms. Frank's sound world with glowing colors.

Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout is based on work of the Peruvian writer José Maria Arguedas, with the string quartet imitating many typical South American instruments, such as the toyo panpipe and the tarka, a heavy wooden flute. In its six sections, each of the musicians has a solo moment, such as in the initial Toyos, with Veronica Salas throwing out vigorous double-stops (playing two strings at once) as the rest of the group backed her with pizzicati, tremolos, harmonics and other delectable effects. Violinist Airi Yoshioka was especially compelling in the vigorous Tarqueada and the final Coqueteos.

Mexican flutist and composer Alejandro Escuer was in the audience to offer opening remarks on his world premiere written for Ms. Shapiro, El Arco de Encina, also dedicated to composer Gabriela Ortiz. Escuer is fascinated with 16th century music, and used a Spanish song from that period as the foundation for a fascinating display of the capabilities of cello combined with electronic sounds. Written to take full advantage of Shapiro's prodigious technique, the piece has a modal feel, combining unusual electronic timbres with the 16th-century song drifting through - now in the foreground, now submerged - creating a hybrid that sounds absolutely of the 21st century. The audience loved this, and I hope Shapiro will give it further hearings.

Two pieces by Mario Lavista, each notable for their economical means, closed the program. Lavista explained that he is fascinated with harmonics, or "magic dusts" as he described them, and each of these works used nothing but harmonics. Cuaderno de viaje (Travel Log), premiered in 1990 at the Netherlands Gaudeamus Festival, is a gentle exploration of these sounds, and deceptively difficult to play. The player must exercise a light hand for the entire span, with virtually no opportunities to rest. Its intervals evoke Aaron Copland, as if refracted through a 21st-century prism, and Shapiro's gently intense playing made the most of the score's transparencies.

In the final Reflejos de la noche, Andrea Schultz, Ms. Yoshioka, Ms. Salas and Ms. Shapiro were in luminous form, and the appreciative audience summoned the composer and musicians back to the stage for several enthusiastic ovations. Lavista's ethereal creation almost seems to disappear as it's being made, its aura lingering in the air like some kind of delicate fragrance.

Bruce Hodges

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