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:: By Ruth E. Kott

:: Photography by Rhona Wise

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:: Arts & Letters

New-world symphony

Composer Ricardo Lorenz brings together two musical traditions.

Ricardo Lorenz’s first composition, written at age 12, was extremely simple. “Just two chords, jumping back and forth,” he says with a laugh. “I got such a kick out of it.” Now, after more than 25 years as a composer, Venezuelan-born Lorenz, PhD’99, not only creates large-scale works for multi-instrument groups, but he also harmonizes two musical worlds: classical and Latin American.

With a generation of teachers who grew up listening to classic rock music alongside Beethoven and Chopin, distinctions between popular and classical are no longer as sharp as they were when he was a student in the ’70s and ’80s, says Lorenz, an associate professor of composition at Michigan State University. “Craftsmanship in the university mixes with the airwaves, pop music. People like to see it as a trend, but it’s more of a zeitgeist.” For Lorenz, Latin American music is as universal as classical music; it wasn’t hard for him to imagine bringing the two together.


Latin rhythms: Ricardo Lorenz (right) and Tiempo Libre’s Jorge Gómez in Miami, during one of their collaboration sessions.

The “epitome of this type of bridging cultures,” he says, is Rumba Sinfónica, his 2007 collaboration with Grammy-nominated Cuban band Tiempo Libre. Running 26 minutes, Rumba Sinfónica is a “symphonic drama,” he explained in program notes to accompany the piece, which Tiempo Libre is playing across North America (November 2007–January 2009). It has “the narrative quality and wide emotional range of classical music,” Lorenz wrote, “and at the same time posess[es] the rhythmic intricacy and streetwise soulfulness of Cuban popular music.”

Starting with a classical orchestra playing shadows of a rumba melody, the piece fills in when the seven-man Tiempo Libre adds what Lorenz calls “the backbone of rumba and Cuban music: a rhythmical pattern known as clave.” Rumba Sinfónica tells the story of rumba’s history and heritage—a lively jam session in the middle is interrupted by a percussion riff, which, as Lorenz explains, acts as “a call to acknowledge the full reach and breath of rumba’s legacy, a legacy that extends back in time to pre-slavery West Africa and to present-day Havana, New York, or Miami.” The result is a conversation between the orchestra’s classical technique and Tiempo Libre’s timba (a hybrid of traditional Cuban music, jazz, rock, salsa, and hip hop)—two worlds that rarely meet.

Cultivating mutual respect between the two genres has been a focus for Lorenz since his days as an Indiana University music student. Moving to the United States in 1982 for school, he found a mentor in Chilean composer Juan Orrego-Salas, then director of Indiana’s Latin American Music Center. “In Latin America,” Lorenz says, “it is very difficult to know about Latin American music. They don’t have a great tradition of building libraries.”  In Venezuela, he explains, a person wouldn’t study music. Not considered suitable for analysis, the resounding rhythms that fill Venezuelan homes are taken for granted: “You are raised with music being a part of the family.”

Lorenz himself was a relatively late bloomer, starting piano lessons when he was 12. Three years later he wrote a three-movement piano work—“pretentiously called ‘Three Short Mysteries,’” Lorenz recalls—for a composition competition. It was then that he realized the power of his voice, this newly discovered medium for communication: “It’s something unique. Yours and nobody else’s.”

Lorenz continued to develop his voice at Chicago, joining the music PhD program in 1992. He studied with ethnomusicologist Phil Bohlman and Israeli composer Shulamit Ran. At Chicago he learned to think about music, he says, “as opposed to doing it—the anthropology and culture of it.”

His first crack at cultural bridge-building in the vein of Rumba Sinfónica came in 1998, when he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) Armonía Musicians Residency Program as a composer-in-residence. The “community-relations” aspect intrigued Lorenz. He wasn’t asked to “go to a Mexican community and play Brahms and Beethoven and Mozart.” Instead, in one of Armonía’s many projects, the chamber orchestra played not in a concert hall but in public libraries and in elementary schools, with a local Latino band, Sones de México. In four years, the motley group put on 32 concerts. “At first,” Lorenz says, “they didn’t know quite how to play with each other.” But then they gained each others’ trust. A turning point came when CSO trumpet player John Hagstrom jumped up during a concert to do a Mexican dance. After that, Lorenz says, in the middle of the show, a dancer would invite Hagstrom for a repeat performance.

Lorenz left the CSO in 2003 to become a visiting assistant professor at Indiana, teaching a course on Latin American popular music. It was there he met Jorge Gómez.

A Cuban pianist and composer, Gómez is also the leader of Miami-based Tiempo Libre. Like the other members of the band, Gómez had been trained in classical conservatories, also learning popular Cuban music in the streets of Havana. When he and Lorenz collaborated, Rumba Sinfónica was born. Tiempo Libre’s manager, Elizabeth Sobol, brought on cocommissioners including the Minnesota and the Detroit Symphony orchestras—Rumba Sinfónica plays at Ravinia Festival May 31, with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra joining Tiempo Libre.

Rumba Sinfónica connects, but doesn’t fuse, two musical forms, Lorenz emphasizes. “I am married to my wife,” Petra Telgkamp, PhD’00, “but I am not fused to her.” Instead, he says, “you learn from each other, and at the end, you are transformed by each other.”