Tuesday 3 December 2019

Serenata Mexicana: engaging new music from Mexico

Serenata Mexicana - Toccata Next
Serenata Mexicana - Alejandro Basulto, Arturo Marquez; Morgan Szymanski, Jamie MacDougall, Gabriella Dall'Olio, Shakespeare Sinfonia, David Curtis; Toccata Next
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 December 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An engaging selection of contemporary Mexican works, celebrating recent commissions by the Anglo Mexican Foundation

This disc, first on the Toccata Next label, was released earlier this year to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Anglo-Mexican Foundation. The disc features three recent commissions by Mexican composers, Alejandro Basulto and Arturo Marquez, performed by the Shakespeare Sinfonia, conductor David Curtis, Morgan Szymanski (guitar), Jamie MacDougall (tenor), and Gabriella Dall'Olio (harp).

The programme on the disc is closely linked to Anglo Arts, the cultural programme of The Anglo Mexican Foundation, which commissioned Dibujos sobre un Puerto from Arturo Marquez for tenor Jamie MacDougall, and in 2015 commissioned the young composer Alejandro Basulto, and the resulting piece, Jig variation, was performed in Mexico by David Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan as part of the official activities to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and resulted in a second commission for Basulto specifically for this recording, Pequena Serenata ranchera.

Alejandro Basulto started out as a classical guitarist before discovering his love of composing. Pequena Serenata ranchera for string orchestra, links the various meanings of serenata, both modern and historical, to create a narrative which has a distinctly Mexican feel. The result is an attractive 14-minute work where the writing for strings has a somewhat neo-classical feel, with suggestions of European works for string orchestra from the 1950s, but mixing in more popular elements too.

Basulto's Jig Variations for guitar and chamber orchestra was inspired by the story of Will Kemp (a comic actor in the Lord Chamberlain's Men) morris-dancing his way from London to Norwich in 1600. Basulto's piece is a set of nine variations on Kemp's Jig which was first published by John Playford in 1651. A delightful work which showcases the brilliance guitar playing of Morgan Szymanski, Basulto's style varies from consciously period treatments of the tune to more modern, often with an interesting tang to the harmony. Basulto's Mexican background adds an interesting extra layer to the music, which is often remarkably catchy.

Arturo Marquez began his training in California, and later studied at the Conservatoire of Music of Mexico, and the Taller de Composicion of the Institute of Fine arts of Mexico, and at the California Institute of the Arts. Dibujos sobre un Puerto is for tenor and harp, and commemorated the centenary of the birth of Mexican poet Jose Gorostiza (1901-1973) by setting six of Gorostiza's poems, Dibujos sobre un Puerto  (Sketches above a harbour). The five movements, 'El Alba (Dawn)', 'Elegia (Elegy)', 'Cantarcillo (Little Tune)', 'La Tarde (Evening)', 'Nocturno-Oracion (Nocturne-Prayer)' moves from dawn to night, with the poet above the harbour musing on what he sees. They form an attractive sequence with a mix of voice and instrument, neither one being the dominant partner. The musical forms are traditional, but there is plenty of interest in Marquez' harmonic language.

The final work on the disc is Mascaras (Masks), Marquez' concerto for harp and chamber orchestra written in 1998. Its movements deal with masks in Mexican culture, with two referring to the uprising of the Chiapas Indians in the 1990s, fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples, where the mask was a symbol of the movement. The work was premiered by the harpist, Lidia Tamayo to whom it is dedicated.

The first movement, 'Mascara Flor (Mask Flower) is quietly lyrical, with the harp prominent, 'Mascara Son' is rather more up-tempo, 'La Pasion segun San Juan de Letran' is lyrical with interesting underlying rhythms and bursts of liveliness, whilst the last movement 'La Pasion segun Margus' is a lively dance'.

This disc is an attractive view of contemporary Mexican music, with two composers many will not have heard of and engaging performance of a selection of striking works. Definitely a disc to explore.

Alejandro Basulto (born 1984) - Pequena Serenate Ranchera (2018)
Alejandro Basulto (born 1950) - Jig Variations (2016)
Arturo Marquez - Dibujos sobre un Puerte (2001)
Arturo Marquez - Mascaras
Morgan Szymanski (guitar)
Jamie MacDougall (tenor)
Gabriella Dall'Olio (harp)
Shakespeare Sinfonia
David Curtis (conductor)
Recorded 10-12 June 2018, St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
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