Review: Cuarteto Latinoamericano Plays a Wide Variety of Styles from South of Rio Bravo

Cuarteto Latinoamericano gave a lively performance at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston on Saturday night. Part of the Music Institute of Chicago’s 2022-23 concert season, this ensemble from Mexico City has specialized in performing music by Latin American composers for 40 years. While not perfect, the performance made for an enjoyable evening.

The quartet is made up three Bitrán brothers: Saúl on first violin, Arón on second violin, and Álvaro on cello. They are joined by Javier Montiel on viola. Like other ensembles comprised of family members, Cuarteto Latinoamericano shows that special bond formed by people who have been around each other their entire lives.

Saturday’s program drew from well-known names, such as Heitor Villa Lobos from Brazil and Alberto Ginastera from Argentina, and lesser-known Francisco Mignone from Brazil and contemporary composer Gabriela Ortiz from Mexico. The selected works offered a nice variety of styles and contrasts. Several famous composers from Latin America were not on the program, illustrating the depth of composition talent from that part of the world. 

Cuarteto Latinoamericano showcases music from Latin America. Photo by Sergio Yazbek.

The concert opened with Villa Lobos String Quartet No. 17, a rambunctious work played with gusto. They performed the opening passages of the Allegro non troppo with the appropriate amount of drive and offered a nice contrast in the quieter second subject.

Villa Lobos gave each player leading moments, and Cuarteto Latinoamericano showed this off. The slow second movement Lento starts with the first violin playing melody with back up by viola and cello. Eventually the first violin gives way to the second violin, who came in very nicely.

The only challenge seemed to be tonality. Being a modern work, the Villa Lobos quartet is hard to judge in terms of tonality. Yet, there were moments of consonance that did not always gel.

Tonality was also an issue in the two tangos by the second composer on the program, Carlos Gardel. These songs were arranged for string quartet by Enriqu Lopez. The first, Volver (To Go Back), had the feeling of a lullaby, lots of sentimental feeling. The second Por una cabeza (By a Head) has been used in several movie soundtracks, including Schindler’s List. As lovely as the performances were, something seemed to be a little off kilter.  

The first half of the program closed with a tour-de-force. In La Calaca (the Skull) Gabriela Ortiz displays awesome prowess in string quartet writing. Lots of sweeping bows with a nice mixture of plucked pizzicato. It ends with a pounding, driving passage that plows the soundscape, a definite wow moment on Saturday night.

Here is their video recording on a stage set with lots of skulls.

The second half opened with a tender work by Franisco Mignone, Essay No. 1 for quartet: Andantino. On Saturday they gave a warm, wistful performance. They also performed a minuet by Mignone as an encore. 

Their recording of Andantino is also available on YouTube:

The major work on the second half was Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 1, op. 20. The opening movement is marked Allegro violento ed agitato, and violent and agitated is what Cuarteto Latinoamericano offered in the form of throbbing chords first played by the viola and cello and later passed amongst the players. This feeling continued in the second movement, Vivacissimo, where the driving sound was extended to playing on the bridge.

Music Institute of Chicago’s next concert is Jazz vocalist Tammy McCann performing Yes, Mahalia!, a tribute to gospel pioneer Mahalia Jackson. Saturday, October 29, 2022. Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, 7:30pm. For ticket information, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.