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Gerald Carpenter: UCSB University Symphony Introduces New Conductor

Christopher Rountree will lead the first concert of the academic year at 8 p.m. Wednesday

UCSB’s University Symphony, led by its new conductor, Christopher Rountree, will play its first concert of the 2011-12 academic year at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall in the UCSB Music Building.

Christopher Rountree, UCSB's new conductor of the University Symphony, comes from Los Angeles trailing clouds of critical glory.
Christopher Rountree, UCSB’s new conductor of the University Symphony, comes from Los Angeles trailing clouds of critical glory.

The concert program consists of three works: Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring (Ballet for Martha, 1944), Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2 and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E-Minor, Opus 95, “From the New World”.

In taking on his UCSB post, Rountree retains his position as founder and artistic director of wild Up, an acclaimed, offbeat classical/contemporary Los Angeles group. By his own report — assuming he is the source of the biography on the wild Up website — “Rountree is a seventh-generation Californian. He is a cyclist, unpaid psychoanalyst, cutter of vegetables, storyteller, burrito enthusiast, poet, composer, teacher and creator of mostly sound-related joy pockets.” He is also, judging from the media raves over wild Up concerts, an extremely charismatic leader and a brilliant musician.

Some new leaders are brought in to put out fires, some to start them. Rountree’s CV suggests the latter course, but only time will tell. His first program — which he probably didn’t have much to say about — suggests that he will be moving ahead with all deliberate speed. As lovely and exciting as they both are, neither Appalachian Spring nor the “New World” Symphony are likely to burn down Lotte Lehmann, or to send the audience rushing from the theater with their hands over their ears. Indeed, but for the Márquez piece in the middle, you might use this program for teaching a course in the history of musical Americana, with Copland embracing Dvorak’s recommendation that true American music must turn to American folk music for inspiration and basic material.

In fact, however, the Márquez Danzón is as much “Mexicana” as the Copland is “Americana” — for although the danzón originated in Cuba, and remains the official dance of that nation, it is still actively danced and enjoyed in Mexico, particularly in Vera Cruz, Oaxaca and Mexico City. The enduring nationwide popularity of Márquez’s Danzón No. 2 has led many to consider it a second national anthem.

Márquez (born in 1950) is shaping up to be something like the Copland of Mexico, with his skillful incorporation of native melodies and harmonies into his structurally classical compositions. He is very popular.

In its classical form, the danzón is a sequence dance, in which all dance together a set of figures — that is, a fixed group of dance steps that make up a recognized, named movement. According to Wikipedia, “The form of danzón created by [Cuban] Miguel Faílde in 1879 … begins with an introduction (four bars) and paseo (four bars), which are repeated and followed by a 16-bar melody. The introduction and paseo again repeat before a second melody is played. The dancers do not dance during these sections: they choose partners, stroll onto the dance floor, and begin to dance at precisely the same moment: the fourth beat of bar four of the paseo, which has a distinctive percussion pattern that’s hard to miss. When the introduction is repeated the dancers stop, chat, flirt, greet their friends, and start again, right on time as the paseo finishes.”

This is more or less the form of danzón danced in Mexico today, and which provided the framework for Márquez’s piece. It is a dance of great dignity and elegance, more suggestive of an 18th century minuet than a modern dance like the cha-cha or the mambo. It is a formal affair, with very little of the melodrama and roll-playing one finds in the tango, which has had a similar career.

Admission to the University Symphony is $15 for the general public and $7 for students, with tickets sold only at the door.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer.

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