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About this Piece

Composed: 2001-2002

Length: ca. 20 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, celesta, pianos, strings, and 3 solo percussionists - suspended cymbal, tam-tam, Chinese opera gongs, slap stick, maracas, wood chimes, wood blocks, Peruvian box, glockenspiel, crotales, tuned cowbells, marimba, Chinese tom-toms, snare drum, tenor drum, pedal bass drum, gong, güiro, quijada, teponaxtlis, water drum, vibraphone, xylophone, tubular bells, piccolo drum, bongos, congas, triangle, Thai gongs, caxixis, bass drum

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)

As the daughter of two founders of the group Los Folkloristas, Gabriela Ortíz grew up immersed in the sounds of Mexican vernacular music. Yet she is also highly trained at some of Mexico's and Europe's most esteemed music schools, ultimately obtaining a doctorate from London's City University. The interaction of street and academy, of improvised traditional music and rigorous electronic formulas, has been crucial in much of her work.

"I have been very interested in writing different pieces that would involve two contrasting sides of my own musical background," Ortíz says. "As a composer working with computers and electronics, I have experienced a considerable change in the way I approach musical creation. On the other hand, the fact of being born in a country with an enormous cultural heritage of popular and ethnic music has motivated me to try to be fair to the different worlds existing inside myself."

A similar tension is found in Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps), the 1953 novel by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier which provided the title and general concept of Altar de piedra (Altar of Stone). Los pasos perdidos is the fictitious diary of a Cuban musician who has been living in Paris and is sent to the Amazon to research local music instruments. On his journey he encounters huge, wind-scored cliffs, the altars in stone that give Ortíz' piece its title. At every point, the novel's protagonist must deal with the contradictions between the wildness of South America - cultural as well as natural - and the constructs of European culture.

Altar de piedra caps a cycle of musical altars, including Altar de neón (1995) for percussion quartet and chamber orchestra and Altar de muertos (1996) for string quartet and tape. It is cast in the three movements of concerto tradition, fast-slow-fast. The trio of soloists play a large percussion battery, including instruments from every continent. There is also a prominent part for timpani, particularly in the outer movements.

A quotation from Los pasos perdidos prefaces each movement. For the first, "Un ángel maraquero," it is: "An angel and a maraca were not new things in themselves. But a maraca-playing angel, sculpted in a burnt-out church's tympanum, was something I had not seen elsewhere. I was already asking myself if the role of these lands in human history was to make possible, for the first time, certain cultural symbioses, when I was distracted from my reflections by something that sounded, simultaneously, as very close and very far."

This movement opens with the three soloists playing Peruvian boxes, and the rhythmic gestures of this opening pervade the whole movement, although the soloists play many other instruments. In addition to the timpani, there are also important orchestral solos for violin, piccolo, and clarinet. Contrasting with the polymetrical rhythmic furies is a hushed double fugue begun in pizzicato strings, sustained by harp and celesta ostinatos and goosed by those insistent Peruvian boxes.

The epigraph for the second movement, "Ritmo genésico," is: "It was not the agitated draining of the shallow streams, nor the torrents' splashing, nor the fresh placidity of small waves that I had so many times heard at night on other shores; it was the sustained push, the generative rhythm of a descent begun hundreds and hundreds of leagues upstream, in the confluence of other rivers borne even further, with all their weight of sources and waterfalls."

This movement begins very softly, with fluid currents in the solo mallet instruments. With much ebbing and flowing, the tide gathers into a powerful flood that culminates in a furious cadenza for marimbas and vibraphone. At the close is a shimmering chorale, solo violin floating over muted strings, with a benediction from the soloists. Symbolically, the solo instruments include a water drum, a dried gourd floating in a bucket of water and struck by a soft yarn mallet.

Preceding the third movement, "Torrente," is: "Each fault, each fold, each wrinkle in the stone is the riverbed of a torrent."
The delicate mysteries of the second movement are carried over into the beginning of the finale. Motivic elements from both previous movements also recur here, as the torrent rushes to a powerful climax. Each of the three percussionists and the timpanist have individual solos in this movement, which ends with clear intimations of Revueltas' streetwise sass and energy.

-- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.