Gustavo Dudamel and Pianist Sergio Tiempo Ignite Esteban Benzecry’s Universos infinitos

Jim Farber on October 14, 2019
Gustavo Dudamel with the LA Phil | Credit: Sam Comen

The hits just keep on coming as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s centenary celebration. The latest world-premiere/commission to spring from this musical cornucopia is the piano concerto, Universos infinitos by Argentinean composer, Esteban Benzecry.

Sergio Tiempo | Credit: Susan Ahlburg
It was given a knock-it-out-of-the-park performance Oct. 10 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, who has long been a champion of Benzecry’s music. The soloist was the young Venezuelan fireball pianist, Sergio Tiempo.

Universos infinitos is the second piano concerto of note to be premiered during the 100th celebration. The first came in March when Yuja Wang rocked Disney Hall with John Adams’s Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? Dudamel’s performance of Universos infinitos achieved the same combination of expansive musical imagination and when-worlds-collide momentum. And Tiempo played it with as much virtuosic frazzle-dazzle as Wang — which is saying a lot.

In 2010 Gustavo Dudamel, then early in his tenure as music director, conducted a series of programs he titled “Americas and Americans.” It was a festival designed to emphasize the importance of cross-border musical influences. Of those programs he wrote, “This festival is one that is meant to link us as a people, so the borders dissolve and we find these common threads ... this is our music.”

It’s a sentiment that has lost none of its relevance and was reflected in the title of this concert, “Dudamel Conducts Music From the Americas.” It pointed a finger at current border politics while emphasizing the powerful influence of indigenous folk music.

The opening work, Sinfonía India (1936) by Carlos Chávez, was heavily influenced by the Indian music of Chávez’s native Mexico. Scored for full orchestra plus an array of traditional Mexican percussion instruments, the work evolves out of three dance-like melodies that are repeated multiple times with shifts between major and minor, all ultimately building to a grand fiesta finale.

Likewise, Benzecry’s piano concerto is based heavily on his in-depth study of native peoples. It is meant to evoke spiritual and musical connections to the folklore and folk music of the Mapuche people of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina.

Of the piece (originally composed in 2011 but premiered Oct. 10), Benzecry writes, “I do not pretend to make something ethnomusicological, but if not, to take roots, rhythms, melodies, and mythology of indigenous America as a fount of inspiration.”

The result is a concerto that follows the traditional three-movement format, but is anything but traditional in the way the composer weaves together his instrumental forces, creates astral totalities that approach the unearthly, employs pugilistic, elbow-slamming piano dynamics in the style of Henry Cowell, and paces the work with the forward-thrusting momentum of a runaway train.

Esteban Benzecry | Credit: Alita Baldi

But the most impressive aspect of the concerto is the way Benzecry “steals” from so many diverse sources and makes them his own — from the opening jackhammer repetitions of a four-note fanfare in the lowest register of the piano, to the succession of tumultuous runs up and down the keyboard often heard in Rachmaninoff.

The first movement, “Un mundo interior” (An interior world), unfolds like a rambunctious hitchhiker’s guide to a lost world, with the orchestra and piano in an all-out sparring match. The graceful flow of the central movement, “Ñuke Kuyen (Mother moon),” creates an atmosphere of jungle moonlight and glassine twinkling stars with a trio of flutes accenting and fluttering around the piano. The final movement, Toccata “Willka Kuti” (Return of the sun), reprises the energetic expressions of the opening movement, but with a mood of jubilant celebration replacing netherworld exploration. It’s a work that deserves a place in the contemporary repertory, though it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Tiempo being able to display its full range of fierce, take-no-prisoners dynamics.

Gustavo Dudamel and composer Esteban Benzecry

The all-American second half of the concert coupled a pair of Aaron Copland favorites: Fanfare for the Common Man and the complete ballet score for Rodeo, which freely integrates threads of American folk music, including the oft-omitted solo for honky-tonk piano.

I can’t recall a piece Dudamel seemed to have more fun conducting. One moment he would take us on a bucking bronco ride, then he’d take Copland’s pauses, instrumental clippity-clops, and trombone droops to the point of laughter. Then he’d bring out the romantic the poetry of the “Corral Nocturne” and the “Saturday Night Waltz” before launching into the buckaroo spirit of the “Hoe-Down” with the musicians whooping right along. They really did “Whoop!”