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Our Latin Heritage Report

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Updated: Jan 21st, 2020

The Church of the Palms is a Presbyterian church of very modern design, but with a Spanish Mission feel. The church offered a pleasant, light-filled performance space for the Saratoga Pops Orchestra’s February 12 concert entitled “Our Latin Heritage”.

The crowd was at or near capacity, having waited in line for the chance to hear music with a Hispanic focus. The choices of Robin Wilkes, conductor and director of instrumental studies at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Saratoga campus, highlighted music inspired by the rhythms, melodies, and moods of Iberia (State College of Florida).

This could have been an effort to reach out to the Hispanic community of the region, and familiarize the non-Hispanic residents with these musical themes. The conductor turned the experience into a learning experience for everyone with brief explanations of each piece

Of The Cuban Overture, George Gershwin (1898-1937)[1], wrote that the composition reflected his brief experience in Havana, and melded his own themes with decidedly Cuban rhythms (Los Angeles Philharmonic).

Its score calls for claves, maracas guiro and bongos, in addition to the usual complement of symphonic instruments, and it clearly required a definite percussion section (Stovall). This is what Samuels calls ”the colors and the rhythms of Havana” created when Gershwin “exploited the unique sounds of Cuban instruments, and fused rumba and blues into symphonic overture form” (Samuels 154).

Both the rumba and blues are audible. The piece starts with a syncopated rhythm, with an emphasis, as is common in Latin music, on the upbeat. The joyous outburst of the opening, with its frenetic melody (A), leads to more contemplative wind melodies (B). After an almost heroic, grand theme (perhaps C?), the orchestra returns to a clearly evident Afro-Caribbean dance rhythm and the simple, syncopated melody of the opening for the finale (A).

The rumba rhythm allows the listener to the first/last sections to pick out the characteristic slow-quick-quick beat, two beats with one subdivided, with a swaying feel that keeps it from seeming repetitive[2]. One never forgets that this is Gershwin – his soaring woodwind lines, and melodies shifting from major to minor, remind one of Rhapsody in Blue without ever departing from his goal of evoking Cuba.

The section from the Carmen Suite, No. 1, titled Les Toreadors, is so familiar that it is difficult to stop and truly hear it again, but this was a great opportunity. Here again, indigenous themes are transformed by a foreigner’s loving and appreciative ear, into something quite magical.

The rhythm starts out as a march, sounding as though it could be written in 2/2 time, but is actually probably marked 4/4 (Bizet). The piece leads off with an almost simplistic staccato melody – then becomes more lyrical, perhaps marked legato. The 4/4 time signature would indeed allow for this transition with less noticeable disruption (Bizet).

The instrumentation seems typically classical, although there is perhaps more unusual percussion sound, for example that of the tambourine or castanets, than are characteristic of a piece with a less exotic origin for its themes (Kuenning). In the melodies that are largely major in key but shift quickly, the composer was trying to evoke an atmosphere that included Gypsy, Spanish, and Basque influences (Boynton).

This call to the exotic is heard again in Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. Originally written to be part of a ballet (Asada and Ohgushi), (Spiers), it is reminiscent of the music played in Indian restaurants. He termed it an, “”instrumentation essay without music “ (Haus and Rodriguez). However, although it sounds a bit like those pieces, which often include some improvisation and elaboration on a simple melodic idea, Bizet begins with a rather long and complex melodic line.

Then he repeats it over and over again (Asada and Ohgushi), adding instruments and handing the melody off to other voices in the orchestra, in strophic form. The melody is reiterated, but the composer urged that the pace be kept the same all the way through (Spiers). The result is exactly what Ravel intended; he wanted a sound that was “insistant” (Spiers). It is hypnotic and sensuous, with what seems like an unvarying single beat, surrounded by the swirl of a melody that stays largely in major key.

The diversity is provided by the increasing complexity of the number of instruments. These add different timbres and tonalities (Haus and Rodriguez). This effect of increasing complexity of timbre substitutes for much harmony, of which there is very little. There is also a dynamic shift over the length of the piece. By the end, it is supposed to have become much louder, and there is a modulation into a new key at the end that rounds it out and gives a sense of resolution rather than the piece just drifting off.

There were other Hispanic-themed pieces on the program, all lively and well-appreciated. The crowd was attentive and responsive. For this listener, these works are newly re-heard favorites. Hearing them live, rather than, for example, in a parody, or as a movie score, allows the composer’s original envisioning of the music to shine.

Hearing them arranged for the particular musical resources of the local community adds a great deal of intimacy to the experience. This is music that is unavoidably vibrant through melodically, whether performed on a digital synthesizer or by committed enthusiastic musicians who are clearly having a wonderful time. This was a terrific experience

Works Cited

Asada, Miki and Kengo Ohgushi. “. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal Spring 1991: 241-249. Web.

Bizet, Georges. “” 2012. Flutetunes. Web.

Boynton, SUsan. “” 2012. Columbia University. Web.

Haus, Goffredo and Antonio Rodriguez. “Formal Music Representation; a Case Study: the Model of Ravel’s Bolero by Petri Nets.” Unversity of Milan, 2012. Web.

Kuenning, Geoff. “Bizet: Carmen Suite № 1,.” 1995. UCLA. Web.

Los Angeles Philharmonic. “Cuban Overture: George Gershwin.” 2012. Los Angeles Philharmonic. Web.

Samuels, Mariesse. “Latin Dance-Rhythm Influences in Early Twentieth Century.” 2012. Herrera Elementary School. Web.

Spiers, John. Bolero. 2012. Web.

State College of Florida. “SCF’s Robyn Wilkes Named Conductor of Sarasota Pops Orchestra.” 14 June 2011. State College of Florida. Web.

Stovall, Sara. “Sarasota Pops Packs the House.” 2012. SRQ Magazine. Web.


  1. It was premiered in 1932 after the composer had begun studying formal composition principles with Joseph Schillinger.
  2. Samuels asserts that Gershwin’s engaging tunes and beats acquired for him the nickname of the ” Latin from Manhattan” and began a Latin dance craze (Samuels ibid).
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