Concerts can be educational without being dry, if executed as the N.C. Symphony's program was Friday night. "Copland in Mexico" offered works by American Aaron Copland and Mexican Silvestre Revueltas, demonstrating each composer's desire to connect with folk culture and political freedoms.
Devised by noted American music expert Joseph Horowitz, the concert included narration by Mary Irwin and characterizations by Matthew Bulluck (both of UNC School of the Arts), along with photos and film projected on a large screen overhead.
The program explored the dramatic influence on Copland after visiting Mexico in 1932. Hearing catchy music at a dance hall there, he decided to change from writing formal modern classical to taking inspiration from everyday people. His first big success, 1937's "El Salón México," is full of raucous swirling and mariachi-like rhythms. Conductor Grant Llewellyn led a crisp, vivid performance, emphasizing the quirky syncopations and quick changes.
Copland's new approach led to many beloved works, including his 1943 ballet, "Rodeo," depicting ranch hands on the American frontier. Llewellyn gave its short opening sequence, "Buckaroo Holiday," appropriate size and volume, typical of Copland's "big as all outdoors" style.
Copland looked on Revueltas as a model for his populist music and revolutionary politics in such pieces as his 1936 homage to the murdered poet Federico García Lorca, and his 1940 "Sensamayá," evoking the ritual murder of a snake, symbolizing governmental strangleholds and the people's retaliation.
Llewellyn gave the "Sound" section from the Lorca piece bustling cacophony and the "Sorrow" section dirge-like solemnness, enhanced by Paul Randall's haunting off-stage trumpet calls.
The first half's bits-and-pieces structure gave way to a richly satisfying second half with the hour-long 1936 Mexican movie, "Redes" ("Nets"), during which the orchestra played Revueltas' score. The artistic black and white film concerns poorly paid fishermen who rise up against the wealthy fish-buying company. Llewellyn's tight control and the orchestra glowing intensity made for a thrilling, moving experience.