Esperanto was invented to be the universal language, spoken and understood across borders. But while it may have failed to unite the world, another language has long existed that everyone comprehends.
“Music is a universal language, a universal artistic creation,” says Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan-born maestro who is returning to the New York Philharmonic this month for the first time in more than a decade. He emphasizes this belief in explaining the combination of works he is conducting here, January 15–21.
Alongside works by Czech and American masters, these concerts showcase a work that spotlights three Latin American talents: Maestro Dudamel and two Argentinians, Esteban Benzecry, whose Piano Concerto, Universos infinitos, is on the program, and Sergio Tiempo, the work’s soloist.
Benzecry conceived of this concerto back in 2011, with Lang Lang set to premiere it in 2013, but the Chinese pianist’s schedule made that impossible. “The work remained archived until Dudamel had the brilliant idea of programming it with Sergio Tiempo,” says Benzecry. “Sergio is an ideal soloist for my concerto—so this concerto is dedicated to him.”
For Tiempo also recognizes music’s ability “to unite people of all origins and cultures by speaking to one of the commonalities of human nature—our feelings. This is what allows it to abolish borders,” he says. That is certainly true in an orchestra, such as the New York Philharmonic itself, in which musicians who hail from around the world come together to express a unified interpretation of works created within a variety of cultures.
But while the pianist believes that a Frenchman can play Beethoven well or a Pole may expertly interpret Bernstein and a Brazilian, Chopin, he acknowledges that native origins do come into play. “Like all human beings, musicians are filters fashioned by the upbringing and culture they have been exposed to. A tango will probably trigger a great deal more memories and associations in an Argentine who has bathed in that language than someone who hasn’t.”
Indeed, as an Argentinian, Benzecry infuses his piano concerto with tonal allusions to cultural traditions native to his land and region. The second movement evokes the spiritual beliefs of the Mapache people of Argentina and Chile, and much of the third movement hearkens to ways South American ethnic groups celebrate the agricultural cycles that arrive yearly with the winter solstice.
And yet, a native steeped in a certain tradition or musical form is not a guarantee that he or she will dance that tango or waltz better than someone from another country. “When I compose, the origin of the interpreter matters little,” insists Benzecry. “My music should be like planting a tree that will last for the next generation and that will be performed by soloists and directors of different nationalities.”
As for Dudamel—who grew up performing the pantheon of European composers, Mozart to Mahler to Stravinsky, along with Latin greats such as Gina-stera, Estevez, and Marquez—whoever plays what by whom matters little to him. “Music written in different places does show different kinds of elements, yes, but in the end it’s one music,” he believes. “It originates from the same tones, on the same scales.”
In fact, on this program Dudamel is also conducting Dvořák’s New World Symphony and Ives’s The Unanswered Question. In an era when forces can tend to separate cultures, this very concert can be seen as manifesting unity—heard, literally, loud and clear. “This program is an opportunity to see this connection and explore just what culture is, and not to see classical music as a European pursuit only,” Dudamel explains.
Given the premiere of the piano concerto, new sounds will fill David Geffen Hall, ones that strike not just musical chords, but also cultural ones. “Latin America is a very fertile region,” Benzecry emphasizes, “full of creativity and musical potential. I think that its artists have great contributions to give the world with their music.”
Tiempo concurs: “The Latin American ingredient is its circumstantial flavor. What matters is that I am playing a beautiful and powerful piece of music with musicians whom I admire and am inspired by, regardless of origin.”
David Masello, executive editor of Milieu magazine, writes about art and culture from New York. He is a widely published essayist and poet, and several of his plays have been produced in New York and Los Angeles.