To state that Altar de cuerda is the last of Gabriela Ortiz’s musical altars implies a certain risk. Up to now (May 2022), the Mexican composer has created seven works in the series, and there is no reason to assume that she will not write more in the future.This is the full list:
Altar de neón (1995) – Four percussionists and chamber orchestra
Altar de muertos (1997) – String quartet, water drums and masks
Altar de piedra (2002) – Three percussionists and orchestra
Altar de fuego (2010) – Orchestra Altar de luz (2013) – Tape
Altar de viento (2015) – Flute and orchestra
The fact is that for Gabriela Ortiz the altar is not a religious concept; instead, its meaning for her tends more towards the symbolic, the spiritual and the magic; an altar is a place to throw music into relief. Nonetheless, the first work in the series was in fact inspired by a true neon altar she came across in a church. In this most improbable image, she found a cultural syncretism, an erasure of borders, a conceptual eclecticism that can very well be synthesized in the idea of the postmodern, which happens to be one of the main aesthetic tendencies that define her music.
In recent years, Ortiz has established a close working relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, a relationship which has produced several works and their respective premieres: Altar de piedra (2002), Téenek (2017), Pico-Bite-Beat (2018), Yanga (2019) and Kauyumari (2021). When in 2021 the opportunity for a further collaboration arises, the composer is ready (and willing) to write a violin concerto; then, Gustavo Dudamel, the LAPhil’s Music Director, puts forth the name of the young and brilliant Spanish violinist María Dueñas. Thus, the stage is set for the creation of Altar de cuerda (‘String Altar’), for violin and orchestra.
Tackling the issue of form in her new piece, Gabriela Ortiz proceeds according to tradition and chooses the usual three-movement structure, fast-slow-fast. In the first movement, 'Morisco chilango' (‘Chilango Moorish’, where “chilango” is a moniker for Mexico City natives) the composer has included a few subtle melodic turns which impart a vaguely Mediterranean flavor, a nod to María Dueñas’s Andalusian roots. This movement is related to a recent work by Gabriela Ortiz, D’Colonial Californiano (2021) for flute and orchestra in which the composer alludes, once more, to cultural hybridization and unstable borders, as well as the copy of a copy of another copy. More generally, 'Morisco chilango' represents one more of Gabriela Ortiz’s visions on cultural appropriation and re-appropriation, an important theme in her musical thought. (She herself is, by the way, proudly chilanga).
In 'Canto abierto' (‘Open Song’) the distant reference is to the open chapels that were a common feature in Mexican sixteenth-century churches, built to catechize Indigenous communities still reluctant to go inside a temple. Here, the composer’s operating principle is the creation of chords that are built and deconstructed, harmonies that slowly grow and contract like a sea swell that can be visually perceived in the score, while the solo violin lyrically floats over the sound waves. At the beginning and at the end of the movement, all wind players (both woodwind and brass) play tuned crystal glasses which create an additional harmonic field.
In 'Maya déco', references are more abstract than those in 'Morisco chilango.' This is a virtuosic, very rhythmic, and fast movement, with a constant dialogue between the solo violin and the orchestra; near the end of the piece there is a fully written cadenza for the soloist. In this movement the composer alludes again, as if in passing, to the American imitations of Mexican cultural icons with results that are neither the one nor the other, imitations that are finally re-imported into Mexico.
The thoughtful reader will discover that there are references to architecture in all of Altar de cuerda’s three movements. On the one hand, this may be attributed to the fact that those cross-border appropriations that occupy the composer´s thoughts are particularly evident in architecture; on the other hand, it so happens that Gabriela Ortiz’s father, Rubén Ortiz Fernández, was not only a prominent music lover and a musician himself, but also an architect by profession.
It is worth noting that in all of Gabriela Ortiz’s Altars (except for Altar de luz) there is an important (and sometimes protagonist) presence of percussion instruments; Altar de cuerda includes, besides tympani, three percussionists playing a role more related to color than to rhythm.
Gabriela Ortiz wrote Altar de cuerda between September and December 2021, on a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and the work is premiered on May 14th, 2022, at Walt Disney Hall, with violinist María Dueñas and the LAPhil conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.
Altar de cuerda is, by the way, the first concerto dedicated to María Dueñas.
– Juan Arturo Brennan
“thrill of discovery illuminated every measure”
“The chunky Andalusian groove of the first movement gave way to a meditative central sequence, and Dueñas’s violin soared through the stratosphere as chimes and tuned crystal glasses added an eerie halo of sound.”
The New York Times
“Altar de Cuerda, or String Altar — the seventh of Ortiz’s ‘Altar’ pieces — set a high bar that was unsurpassed over the two nights. It begins with a scorching statement in the violin, with whacks of triangle and crotales (spooky sounding cymbals) that rise off the stage like puffs of smoke in a roiling brew. At a few points, the woodwind and brass musicians played tuned crystal cups that conjured ritualistic magic.”
Los Angeles Times
"The beautiful, bass-heavy central movement, ‘Canto Abierto’ (Open Song), conjures a mystical atmosphere of early Mexican churches. A bass drum booms, deep strings give mildewy cushion and timpani glide down as if to the center of the Earth. Wind instruments are the wind. The glistening solo violin does the singing. A final chord in the orchestra sounds electrically charged.”