The Evolving Sound of Latin American Composition

Though classical music has yet to experience a Latin music boom, several representative composers are thriving

By Brian Wise | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Every now and then, a major pop culture trend seeps into classical concert halls and recording studios. Consider Latin music, a global phenomenon currently seeing all kinds of sales, touring, and streaming records. Four of the Top Ten artists on Spotify in 2023 were Latin, and one of them, Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny, is the platform’s most-streamed artist ever, with billions of streams of his hit songs.

Though classical music has yet to experience a Latin music boom, several representative composers are thriving. Consider: violinist Anne Akiko Meyers has performed Fandango, a violin concerto by veteran Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, more than 25 times since its 2021 premiere, and her recording of the piece with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil with Anne Akiko Meyers on Márquez: “Fandango” at the world premiere in August 2021

Elsewhere, there has been a “resurgence of interest” in music by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, according to a spokesperson for his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, including performances this spring of The Fire Outlives the Spark, a tribute to late violinist Geoff Nuttall. The Metropolitan Opera will stage his opera Ainadamar this fall.

And Carnegie Hall will devote part of its 2024–25 season to Nuestros Sonidos (“Our Sounds”), a Latin music festival spanning contemporary works, lieder, reggaeton, salsa, bachata, Tejano, and Latin jazz. Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz will hold the venue’s Debs Composer’s Chair in 2024–25 and introduce five of her new works, starting in October with a cello concerto for Alisa Weilerstein, Dudamel, and the L.A. Phil.

Gabriela Ortiz
Gabriela Ortiz. Photo: Martierene Alcántara

Having appeared on Carnegie Hall’s last major survey, the 2012–13 Voices of Latin America festival, Dudamel will open the season with Ginastera’s Estancia. Yet in some ways, the landmark 1952 ballet is an exception to the current trend; many other canonical 20th-century Latin composers are absent from Carnegie’s lineup, among them, Mexican composers Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas, Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Argentine Astor Piazzolla. The dearth of Chávez’s music is particularly notable, given that several of his works were premiered at Carnegie during the 1940s and ’50s.  

Gustavo Dudamel conducting orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel. Photo: Stephan Rabold

A Contemporary Focus 

“Any effort is good,” says Carol Hess, a musicologist and author of Experiencing Latin American Music and Aaron Copland in Latin America. “It’s a little hard for me to see what kind of audience it is. And a few more of the core composers might have been a better strategy. But Dudamel is doing Ginastera’s Estancia with the narration, which is unusual. He’s not just doing the concert suite.”


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Asked about the lack of some canonical names, festival organizers say that the series should be regarded as a snapshot of the landscape, with programs created in conjunction with touring artists. “In a perfect world, we would check all of those boxes, but we have a certain number of spots in all of these areas,” says Liz Mahler, Carnegie’s director of artistic administration. “Even if it’s not encyclopedic, and we’re not able to feature every composer that we’d like, if we can highlight the breadth and real variety of the composers that we do have, that in itself we’re very excited to do.”

The increasingly in-demand Ortiz will be represented with premieres of her newest string quartet, for the Attacca Quartet, and a violin-and-piano piece for Spanish violinist Maria Dueñas. The cello concerto for Weilerstein, titled Dzonot, draws inspiration from ecological concerns and pre-Columbian and indigenous cultures. Its title comes from the Mayan word for cenotes, the deep sinkholes in limestone that shelter pools, dotting the lush Yucatan Peninsula. Environmentalists warn that these natural wonders are being threatened by the construction of a new tourist-focused rail network across the peninsula.

Maria Dueñas playing violin
Maria Dueñas. Photo: Milagro Elstak

“My piece is about the beauty of those incredible underground rivers and caves and why they were very important for the Maya culture,” says Ortiz, who lives in Mexico City. “But it’s also about the construction of the Maya Train that they are building and how they are destroying this ecosystem. I’m not saying this is a protest—it’s a concerto—but it’s a way to say this is wrong, this is not the way we need to go.” Ortiz adds that the lyrical sound of the cello captures her nostalgia for the region’s simpler past (the Mexican government contends that the train will help spur economic prosperity).

This will be the second work Dueñas has premiered by Ortiz, the first being Altar de cuerda (Altar of strings), a 2022 violin concerto that paid homage to the culture of Mexico City and beyond. Dueñas calls Ortiz “a great storyteller.” She adds in an email, “When I first started working on the concerto, I could clearly imagine many kinds of stories or images as the music unfolded. Ortiz’s writing is extremely sensorial, and the wide range of instrumentation takes the listener on an evocative journey,” summoning Aztec temples, rainforests, and the Moorish architecture of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. “Her music is a rich explosion of colors and ‘flavors.’”  

Attacca Quartet
Attacca Quartet. Photo: David Goddard

Folkloristic and Modern Sounds  

Debates over Latin America’s musical representation and how modern it should be date back at least a century. Though Ortiz has written encore pieces like Antrópolis, a pulsing homage to Mexico City’s antros, or dance halls, she has also composed works in a more abstract vein, including Exilios for clarinet and string quartet and Denibée-Yucañana for flute, double bass, and percussion. Similarly, her forebear Chávez is best known for his Sinfonía India, with its use of folk melodies and native Yaqui instruments, yet much of his orchestral writing is steeped in modernist idiom (see the March-April issue of Strings for a closer look at Chávez’s legacy).

Hess, the musicologist, writes how Latin American music’s global profile has at times been highly politicized. In response to the rise of European fascism in the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to foment solidarity with Latin America, establishing the “good neighbor” policy and sponsoring a series of cultural diplomacy tours through the US State Department. Aaron Copland helmed several of these tours, traveling to countries from Mexico down to Chile. But as relations with Latin America soured during the Cold War, nationalistic styles gained added baggage. Some Latin composers avoided “pictorial,” folkloristic sounds, feeling it would strand their music on the periphery of a European-rooted art form.


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composer Aaron Copland
Aaron Copland. Photo: Library of Congress/Public Domain

Though Copland composed El Salón México and the Three Latin American Sketches, he too became ambivalent about a Latin aesthetic. “Copland goes to a festival in Caracas in 1954 and he complains in the New York Times that the Latin American composers he heard all sounded too Latin American,” notes Hess. “But five years earlier, he complained about a whole class of Brazilian students who were working with a German émigré who taught serialism. Copland was complaining that this language wasn’t temperamentally suited to them.”

Ortiz finds that, even today, some younger Latin American composers avoid using nationalistic elements in their music. “They want to be played in Europe, so they have to sacrifice their own background,” she says. “This is wrong as well. I grew up eating tacos, not sausages. It’s so different.” (Meanwhile, several composers on Carnegie Hall’s festival, including Tania León, Edmar Castañeda, and Clarice Assad, tapped into their native idioms after settling in the US.)

Yet Ortiz hopes that a growing number of conductors, including Dudamel and Rafael Payare, both from Venezuela, and Carlos Miguel Prieto, from Mexico, can show that Latin America is not an artistic monolith. “Central America is so different from South America. Mexico is so different from Argentina,” she says. “You cannot label Latin American music as one thing. Normally, that is what happens.” Some presenters fall into a trap—the idea that “all Latin American music should be about ‘fiesta’ or that Latin American musicians cannot be profound or complex.”

orchestra conductor Rafael Payare
Rafael Payare. Photo: Gerard Collett

Mahler of Carnegie Hall calls Ortiz “a great example of a Latin American composer who takes us on these very complex journeys. It’s not just a party. It’s more nuanced, it’s more complex, and just a wide variety of themes that she brings to the table.”


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Ortiz’s compatriot Arturo Márquez takes a more unabashedly folkloristic approach in his Fandango, with the first two movements based on old Iberian dances filtered through Mexican and Caribbean influences. The finale is a tribute to the virtuosity of Huasteco violinists from northeastern Mexico. Anne Akiko Meyers asked Márquez to write the concerto after hearing his popular Danzón No. 2. “Arturo’s music has so much of his heart in it, and it’s so authentically soulful that it really resonates with audiences,” she says. “Performing it is really challenging. The rhythms are so fun, and it’s so intense for both the orchestra and violin.”

composer Arturo Marquez
Arturo Marquez. Photo: Milton Martinez, Secretaria de Cultura CDMX

Ultimately, there is some 20th-century Latin orchestral music that is secure in the repertoire, be it Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas brasileiras No. 5, Revueltas’ Sensemayá, or Moncayo’s Huapango (featured in a recent Super Bowl commercial). Other compositions could benefit from a push. Meyers has performed Ponce’s seldom-heard Violin Concerto while Hilary Hahn has recently championed Ginastera’s Violin Concerto. Chavez’s Violin Concerto has mostly languished in modern times.

With 62 million Latinx people in the US, according to the 2020 census data, representation in concert halls is seen as increasingly vital. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Boosey & Hawkes reports that programming of Latin American composers has rebounded more quickly from the pandemic than other parts of its catalog.

Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and 8 cellos, performed by cellists from Berlin Philharmonic and Anna Prohaska, soprano, in 2015.

“There’s definitely a revitalization of Latin American music, thanks to Arturo [Márquez] and Gabriela Ortiz,” Meyers adds. “There’s a real appreciation because their language is so warm and coloristic. This is such fascinating music, and it simply needs to be performed way more often.”