Trumpet Virtuoso Pacho Flores and the San Diego Symphony Give the West Coast Premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s Trumpet Concerto

Two years ago, the brilliant Venezuelan trumpet virtuoso Pacho Flores performed an impressive trumpet concerto by Paquito D’Rivera with the San Diego Symphony in Civic Theatre. So it was no surprise that Music Director Rafael Payare would invite Flores back, and Thursday at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium Flores returned to the San Diego Symphony to perform the West Coast premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s Altar de Bronce.

Pacho Flores [photo (c.) Jean Martinez]

As one of the several orchestras commissioning this new work for Flores, the San Diego Symphony earned the right to give this concerto its West Coast premiere. Noted Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz has written works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and she was recently appointed to the 2024-2025 Carnegie Hall Debs Composer’s Chair.

Altar de Bronce turns out to be a splendid virtuoso chart for both the trumpet soloist and the orchestra. Its single movement unfolds with a sense of unbridled yet playful invention, and the moods of the 20-minute concerto are reflected in the choice of four different trumpets specified by the composer. The brightest and most animated sections call for the high Piccolo Trumpet, while the mellow, languid sections call for the Bass Trumpet. More serious, complex themes require the orchestral C Trumpet, and themes more related to popular expression are given to the familiar B-flat Trumpet. A master of the trumpet in every range and style, Flores elegantly transitioned from one instrument to the other and suavely navigated the composer’s stylistic moods. From the short introduction Ortiz gave to the Mandeville audience before the performance, it was clear that Flores requested this array of trumpet sonorities to broaden the concerto’s scope.

Ortiz’s style for this concerto, a vibrant post-modernism, clearly avoids the cliches of tonality without abandoning it. Her trademark motif is a rapid, whirring roulade that explodes in an ascending rocket, clearly an apt figure for the assertive trumpet. In her score, Ortiz has more closely woven the trumpet’s themes into the orchestral texture, rather than following the more structured alternation between soloist and orchestra that defines the traditional concerto. She has scattered a few cadenzas in the piece for the soloist to toy with, and it was difficult to ascertain at times whether Flores was gleefully improvising or carefully executing the composer’s notation.

Flores and the orchestra offered Astor Piazzolla’s Revirado as their encore.

In light of the orchestra’s robust performance of Ortiz’s Altar de Bronce, I think it is safe to say they enjoyed its challenges, and the commendable collaboration of Payare and Flores also communicated their high esteem for the new concerto. I hope it finds its place in the repertoire, since there is hardly an abundance of trumpet concertos from which to choose.

The rest of Payare’s program offered a blissful indulgence of Impressionist favorites by Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Ravel’s Second Suite from his ballet Daphnis et Chloé opened the concert. In the atmospheric opening movement “Daybreak,” we were enchanted by the haunting solo from Principal Oboe Sarah Skuster, and in the middle movement “Pantomime,” Principal Flute Rose Lombardo floated a winning, lithe incantation over the delicate pizzicato string sections. Payare finished the Suite leading a thrilling account of the ecstatic, propulsive  General Dance,” a tribute to the orchestra’s mighty percussionists and resonant horn section.

In spite of Payare’s insightfully detailed direction and the players’ graceful phrasing of Ravel’s popular suite Le Tombeau de Couperin, this elegant piece seemed out of place in the utilitarian, all-purpose Mandeville Auditorium. To turn a familiar phrase inside out, experiencing this Ravel work at Mandeville was like a delicate piece of china left in the bull ring.

The massive sounds of Claude Debussy’s tone poem  La mer, however, easily filled the Mandeville space, and the orchestra gave a vibrant, dramatic interpretation of this beloved score. Perhaps it was just coincidental that sitting in Mandeville Auditorium on the UC San Diego campus, I realized that this audience was very close to the actual shore of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony at Mandeville Auditorium on the campus of UC San Diego in La Jolla on Thursday, February 15, 2024.

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