Saturday evening, Sept. 2, marked the second visit to the Lucas Theatre by the famed Mexican string ensemble Cuarteto Latinoamericano. And I hope Lucas Executive Director Ken Carter wasn’t just teasing when he mentioned he might like to make it a regular annual event — because this is something I could get used to.
The free show was well-attended, and very appreciative of the Cuarteto’s fresh, modern take on the string quartet format. Each piece was charmingly but humbly introduced by violinist Aron Bitran (“I love his accent,” my young daughter remarked, and indeed the Cuarteto seems to have a particular allure for the young).
Aron is one of three Bitran brothers -- Saul and Alvaro being the other two -- in this quartet now celebrating its 25th year of performance (violist Javier Montiel rounds it out).
Their entire program consisted of works by Central and South American composers, many of them personal friends of this well-connected group of talented players.
A particular highlight was the performance of Mexican composer Javier Alvarez’s now world-famous “Metro Chabacano,” a kinetic but nonetheless strangely calming piece written for both live and recorded play in Mexico City subway stations. (“It was heard by two million people a day,” noted Aron of the Cuarteto’s endless-loop recording in Mexico City.) The piece has since been performed in subway stations in L.A. and Toronto.
While of course delving into the acquired-taste atonal quality so typical of recent classical composition, the Cuarteto also displayed an unforced old-school lyrical sensitivity, blending the class of the old world with the vigor of the new.
This mixture of restrained elegance and streamlined modernity seems to be a hallmark of Latino high culture, from the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the paintings of Lalo Garcia. I’ve always admired Latin American art’s ability to blend the real with the surreal, it’s frank realism with an eye (and ear) for sheer beauty. I think it’s what in the old days we used to call good taste.
Color is also an essential part of Latino art, musical as well as visual, and the Cuarteto is no exception. Their bag of musician’s tricks — including any number of percussive techniques both with and without the bow — displayed a childlike playfulness. Overall their performance reveled in a remarkable panache which took the concert to a new level of real audience participation.
Indeed, during the final selection, Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s Quartet No. 1 — the only multi-movement portion of the program and the oldest as well, dating to 1948 — the audience clapped enthusiastically between movements. This is generally a catastrophic faux pas at most classical music events, but an action that seemed quite appropriate for these vibrant modern compositions. Who couldn’t respond to a piece with a movement entitled “Allegro violento ed agitato?”
(During the old Savannah Symphony days, clapping between movements might get you surrounded and stomped to death by an angry mob of elderly tuxedo-clad patrons originally from our nation’s more northerly climes, who drove into downtown once a month to enjoy an earlybird dinner and steep themselves in the classical oeuvre before hightailing it back to the safety of their gated communities. Ah, good times.)
But here at the Lucas on this particular night, with these particular musicians, clapping between movements seemed like the most natural thing in the world -- and something that the Cuarteto themselves certainly didn’t seem to mind.
After an enthusiastic standing ovation, the Cuarteto returned for an encore. Surely they’d break form and play a more familar, European tune, perhaps a light opera overture, or anything Italian?
Nah. They played — what else? — a tango. ç