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Quinteto Latino Explores New Riches

Berkeley City Club

Date: Tue May 3, 2011 8:00pm

“I had a brief stint of gigs in Latin America,” said Armando Castellano, founder of the woodwind quintet Quinteto Latino, “and what I found there was indeed a long history.”

Castellano, the group’s founder and French horn player, was raised deeply rooted in his Mexican culture and had studied music from an early age. He traveled through Latin America shortly after graduate school. “There was this long, rich history that Latin America honored,” Castellano continued, discussing the wealth of Latin American classical music composers he discovered through his travels, “but we don’t know them in the United States.”

This became the genesis of Quinteto Latino and of Castellano’s overarching mission for the group: to perform, educate about, and advocate the music of Latinos and Latino Americans.

Through the years, his quintet has evolved into a vibrant mix of colors and rhythms. What was once a group of musicians joined to give voice to the underserved is now a successful, complex ensemble making a difference in cultural awareness as well as in multiethnic music education.

“Having our group membership be diverse is important when we’re playing for kids,” said Castellano. “We do a lot of kids’ programs, and one of our popular programs is called ‘Raíces de Nuestra Musica’ [Our musical roots]. That program is about where the five of us come from — we play a piece that comes from each of our heritages. It gives us the opportunity to honor all the different cultures that we come from, [and] we can play each other’s music and share with each other and share with the audience.

“Whenever you have any group of people, everyone has their different perspectives, but in particular ethnicity,” he went on. “In the classical music realm, it really provides a unique perspective and a unique voice in terms of the voice we all portray. We have so many different opinions coming in — people really like it. And I think people really connect with the way all of us talk and think about the music.”

Cultural bridge-building is an area Quinteto Latino has been continually developing, in repertoire and audience. By exploring traditional styles (weaving different sounds for flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon) and premiering works by composers past and present, the quintet has created a vital experience unique to classical music performance (which has lately placed weight on warhorse composers, in the face of embattled financial times).

“There’s a number of different programming spots that we’ve evolved into. One is the performance of Latin American classical music, and ultimately what we’re trying to do there is present this unique music to the U.S. in a way that many different kinds of people can connect with,” said Castellano. “You don’t have to be Latino to listen, and you don’t have to be a classical music lover, either.

“I wish that Latin American music and music from other parts of the world that are classically oriented could be a part of our everyday classical music programming,” he went on. “That’s ultimately what I’m trying to advocate for, so that [this music] doesn’t have the ‘Día de Los Muertos’ program only, but is weaved into every concert. The people who hire us all year [not simply on Latino holidays] are seeing that there’s more to Latin American music than just mariachi, Latin jazz, and banda music.”

Quinteto Latino performs beyond the old-guard of formal, community-based, and educational concerts. They have recently partnered with MACLA (Latin American Cultural Arts Movement) and composer Guillermo Galindo on a project called “Voces del Desierto” (Voices of the desert/deserted). The project aims to illustrate the immigrant experience through a new composition based on found objects along a Texan border town. The composition, an interactive piece, will premiere next April at MACLA.

This spring, however, in time for Cinco de Mayo, the group is scheduled to perform with Berkeley Chamber Performances. “[This is] a perfect partnership,” Castellano explained. “[It’s] how I want to partner with a presenter: Play the big meaty pieces in a way that’s really accessible and then play a concert for kids to honor the community at large.”

The concert marks the first time the group has performed a concert of entirely Mexican composers. “Each of the composers on the program is so different,” Castellano remarked. “They write in such a dramatically different style. It provides this wonderful swath of variety. We can take the word out, ‘Mexican,’ and it could represent such a diverse type of writing for wind quintet and classical writing in general. But all these diverse types of sound qualities, and colors, and timbres, and rhythms, and compositional methods are all from one country in the last hundred years. It’s fantastic. And I think the audience is going to be surprised how diverse it is. ... There’s a lot of great literature we haven’t even touched!”

Jessica Hilo is a freelance arts reporter in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured in the Santa Barbara Independent and Canadian webzine Uncharted Sounds. She served as a social media commentator for the National Summit for Arts Journalism in 2009. Her short documentary on film music composers, "Composing the Score," debuted in Los Angeles December 2009.