Food trucks, Monte Albán and the Día de Muertos celebration are among the subjects that animate the music of Gabriela Oritz, an increasingly prominent voice on Mexico’s classical music scene. Just as Mexican film directors and visual artists have made inroads into American cultural life, Ortiz’s works have been presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony and California’s Ojai Music Festival, where this September she was the resident composer.
Episode 23 of CSO Sessions features Ortiz’s Denibée-Yucañana, a four-movement tribute to Rufino Tamayo, the Oaxaca-born painter who died in 1991 and whose work was strongly influenced by his Zapotec heritage as well as European styles. In Denibée-Yucañana, Ortiz aims to capture the light and contrasts in Tamayo’s painting of Monte Albán, a sprawling archaeological site on Oaxaca’s Cerro del Tigre or Tiger Mountain ("Denibée" in the Zapotec language).
“I remembered that the first time I was really in contact with Rufino was on a trip that I took when I was 10 years old,” Ortiz said in an interview from her native Mexico City. “My parents belonged to a very famous folkloric band named Los Folkloristas. They were touring in Europe at the time, and I was traveling with them. We went to this exhibition of Rufino Tamayo in Italy, and I was completely amazed at the use of color in Tamayo's work.”
Scored for flute, double bass and percussion, Denibée-Yucañana incorporates an array of novel timbres and moments of high virtuosity. In parts of the first movement, a marimba player uses hands instead of mallets, while a Latin jazz groove underpins the second movement. The toccata-like finale features a plucked bass line and some dazzling flute pyrotechnics.
Like her compositional forebears, including Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez, Ortiz has a longstanding interest in pre-Columbian Mexico. Among her early breakthroughs was Altar de muertos, composed in 1997 for the Kronos Quartet and inspired by the traditional Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead celebration. A percussion concerto, Concierto Candela (1995), features the teponaztli, a drum from the Aztec civilization.
This ear for the folkloric was nurtured by a childhood piano teacher who introduced Ortiz to Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, a collection of piano pieces that mesh Eastern folk music and Western traditions. She went on to study composition at the National Conservatory of Music and the National Autonomous University of Mexico before pursuing additional training in London, where she earned a Ph.D. from the City University in 1996.
After returning to Mexico, Ortiz often faced the question of straddling cultures. “At the beginning it was a dilemma,” she said. “Do I want to sound more European or more Latin American? Now, it's not a question anymore. I just do what I have to do and if the [Latin] rhythm comes out in my music, it's because it's part of who I am.”
Urban landscapes appeal to Ortiz. Her chamber piece Tepito: Barrio de Resistencia is an eight-minute homage to Mexico City’s colorfully gritty Tepito neighborhood, evoking its sprawling market, boxing gyms and street shrines. The Houston Symphony performed it last October. “Mexico City is a hilarious and surreal city,” she said. “There are plenty of inspirations here. I prefer to see the interesting side of the city, rather than the traffic and the pollution.”
In similar fashion, Pico-Bite-Beat is inspired by Los Angeles’ innovative Mexican-American food scene, a landscape in which Korean chefs add kimchi to tacos and burritos are stuffed with pastrami. Musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave the work its premiere in 2018. The following year, Ortiz took on a daunting commission: a piece to be paired with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The result was Yanga, about an enslaved African prince who was shipped to Mexico in the 16th century, and who escaped to establish the first free town in the Americas. Gustavo Dudamel conducted the L.A. Phil premiere, with a full chorus and the Mexican percussion quartet Tambuco.
Opera has been Ortiz’s favored outlet for challenging subjects, including migration and the drug trade. Her 2008 opera Only the Truth (Unicamente la Verdad) follows the fictional story of Camelia La Texana, a drug smuggler who murders her partner after he betrays her with another woman. The tale is based on a narcocorrido, a ballad style that centers on the exploits of drug barons, frequently steeped in urban myths. Only the Truth made waves with its use of Mexican folkloric styles, video design and allusions to tabloid journalism.
Though Ortiz is pleased by the growing awareness of Mexican repertoire, she sighs when her music occasionally turns up in “fiesta”-themed concerts, more evocative of margaritas and frivolities than the nuanced themes that fuel her imagination.
“This is the stereotype of Latin American composers,” she said. “But Latin American music is enormously wide in terms of its aesthetics. You could find people who write in a very nationalistic way, or people who have a very different aesthetic, influenced by European schools or technologies.
“Twenty-first century music shows us that we have so many different traditions and aesthetics and so many different ways to express ourselves.”