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At-A-Glance

Composed: 2021

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, timpani, percussion (1=suspended cymbal vibraphone, tambourine, tam-tam, guiro, maracas, snare drum; 2=crotales, glockenspiel, large gong, xylophone, whip, congas; 3=triangle, gong, bongos, cymbals, snare drum, mark tree, temple block), harp, piano/celesta, solo violin, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: world premiere

About this Piece

To date (May, 2022), Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz has created seven works in the series of “musical altars,” and there is no reason to assume that she will not write more in the future. This is the full list so far: 

Altar de neón (1995), for four percussionists and chamber orchestra 
Altar de muertos (1997), for string quartet, water drums, and masks 
Altar de piedra (2002), for three percussionists and orchestra 
Altar de fuego (2010), for orchestra 
Altar de luz (2013), for tape 
Altar de viento (2015), for flute and orchestra 

The fact is that for Gabriela Ortiz, the altar is not a religious concept; instead, its meaning for her tends more towards the symbolic, the spiritual, and the magic; an altar is a place to throw music into relief. Nonetheless, the first work in the series was in fact inspired by a true neon altar she came across in a church. In this most improbable image, she found a cultural syncretism, an erasure of borders, a conceptual eclecticism that can very well be synthesized in the idea of the postmodern, which happens to be one of the main aesthetic tendencies that define her music. 

In recent years, Ortiz has established a close working relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, a relationship which has produced several works and their respective premieres: Altar de piedra (2002), Téenek (2017), Pico-Bite-Beat (2018), Yanga (2019), and Kauyumari (2021). When in 2021 the opportunity for a further collaboration arose, the composer was ready (and willing) to write a violin concerto; then, Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil’s Music & Artistic Director, put forth the name of the brilliant young Spanish violinist María Dueñas. Thus, the stage was set for the creation of Altar de cuerda (“String Altar”), for violin and orchestra. 

Tackling the issue of form in her new piece, Gabriela Ortiz proceeds according to tradition and chooses the usual three-movement structure, fast-slow-fast. In the first movement, “Morisco chilango” (“Chilango Moorish,” where “chilango” is a moniker for Mexico City natives), the composer has included a few subtle melodic turns which impart a vaguely Mediterranean flavor, a nod to María Dueñas’s Andalusian roots. More generally, “Morisco chilango” represents one more of Gabriela Ortiz’s visions on cultural appropriation and re-appropriation, an important theme in her musical thought. (She herself is, by the way, proudly chilanga). 

In “Canto abierto” (“Open Song”), the distant reference is to the open chapels that were a common feature in 16th-century Mexican churches, built to catechize indigenous communities still reluctant to go inside a temple. Here, the composer’s operating principle is the creation of chords that are built and deconstructed, harmonies that slowly grow and contract like a sea swell that can be visually perceived in the score, while the solo violin lyrically floats over the sound waves. At the beginning and at the end of the movement, all wind players (both woodwind and brass) play tuned crystal glasses, which create an additional harmonic field. 

“Maya déco” is a virtuosic, very rhythmic, and fast movement, with a constant dialogue between the solo violin and the orchestra; near the end of the piece, there is a fully written cadenza for the soloist.  

The thoughtful listener will discover that there are references to architecture in all of Altar de cuerda’s three movements. On the one hand, this may be attributed to the fact that those cross-border appropriations that occupy the composer´s thoughts are particularly evident in architecture; on the other hand, it so happens that Gabriela Ortiz’ father, Rubén Ortiz Fernández, was not only a prominent music lover and a musician himself, but also an architect by profession. 

It is worth noting that in all of Gabriela Ortiz’s Altars (except for Altar de luz) there is an important (and sometimes protagonistic) presence of percussion instruments; Altar de cuerda includes, besides timpani, three percussionists playing a role related more to color than to rhythm.   

Gabriela Ortiz wrote Altar de cuerda between September and December 2021, on a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the work is the first concerto dedicated to María Dueñas.

—Juan Arturo Brennan