The Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra’s first concert in Chicago at the Symphony Center
With a history spanning over 60 years and ties to one of the great cellists of the 20th century, Pablo Casals, as well as its namesake annual festival, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra has become one of the most important classical institutions of Central America and the Caribbean Basin.
The orchestra remains little known in the continental United States, but its profile will no doubt be raised on August 6 when it presents a concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall that will be highlighted by several important premieres.
“I’m glad we came,” said musical director and principal conductor Maximiano Valdés. “I think there are wonderful things happening musically in Puerto Rico at a very good level. People don’t know us, so it’s a good opportunity to show what we do.
Not only will the appearance mark the 68-member orchestra’s debut in the Windy City, but it will also be the ensemble’s first performance in the continental United States since 2004 and its first outside Puerto Rico since 2005.
“The orchestra is very excited,” said orchestra director Yabetza Vivas. “They just want to be there and play in this really wonderful venue. It is a dream for many of our musicians to play there.
The concert is presented by the 22-year-old National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, 3015 W. Division, the only such institution outside of the US insular territory dedicated to celebrating its culture and heritage.
As part of the orchestra tour, some of its members will present an educational performance to 30 to 60 local high school students at the museum. “It’s part of what we want as an orchestra — not just to play, but to connect with a community,” Vivas said.
After completing his musical studies in Barcelona and Madrid, Spanish-born Casals went on to a legendary international career that took him everywhere from the White House to the finest concert halls in the world. In 1955 he traveled to Puerto Rico, where his mother was born to Catalan parents.
He moved to the island the following year and organized the Casals Festival, which became an annual offering, attracting some of the most prestigious artists in the world. He ran the event until his death in 1973 at the age of 96, and it has been thriving ever since. Through Casals’ efforts, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1958 to serve as the festival’s house ensemble. Funded by the Puerto Rican government, it is still associated with the event, but now has an active season of concerts and outreach activities from fall through spring.
Valdés, former musical director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra of New York, took up his post in Puerto Rico in 2008.
“I come from Chile,” he said, “and there is not much difference in terms of language and culture. Human relations are essentially the same. Puerto Ricans are more tropical than us, but, nevertheless, it was very easy to understand and I had a very good rapport with the orchestra.
Unlike many orchestras, which have musicians of various nationalities and backgrounds, Valdés estimates that approximately 98% of the musicians in this ensemble come from Puerto Rico. Many got their start through a network of free music schools across the island and went on to study at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, which Casals established in 1959.
“It’s a good orchestra that can play correctly, well and intelligently,” said the conductor.
While the ensemble performs the expected staples of European classical music, Valdés has focused on Spanish, Latin American and American composers, and the orchestra makes it a point to perform Puerto Rican popular music. “Our audience loves this music and grew up listening to it,” he said.
At the request of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the ensemble will highlight its homeland in Chicago, presenting “Sonidos de Mi Isla (Sounds of My Island)”, a program of popular and classical works by composers associated with Puerto Rico. .
The concert will open with “Mariandá” by Ernesto Cordero, which the orchestra commissioned a few years ago for the Casals Festival.
“It’s a very Puerto Rican piece,” Valdés said. “It has an atmosphere and orchestral color that evokes images of Puerto Rico, so much so that we chose it to promote [the island] in a tourist program organized by the government.
Other works include “Divertimento del Sur (Fun of the South)”, by Héctor Campos Parsi, who, like Aaron Copland and Philip Glass, studied with the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and “Me he perdido (I’ ve Lost Myself)” by Angélica Negrón, who has received commissions from the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics.
The evening will end with popular Puerto Rican music, including “Felices días (Happy Days)” by Juan Morel Campos, an elegant example of a dance or traditional dance, and an instrumental version of “Preciosa” by Rafael Hernández, which Valdés has called the “Anthem of Puerto Rico.
“Everyone,” he said, “will rejoice when they hear this.”