The Juneau Symphony has never attempted something like its season-opening "World Beats," a program that explores rhythms from Latin America and around the world.
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Then again, it's rarely had the chance to play with a percussionist as versatile as Mexican multi-instrumentalist Ricardo Gallardo.
The Mexican multi-instrumentalist flew into Juneau on Wednesday afternoon and will join the symphony on Ricardo Lorenz's "Pataruco," for Venezuelan maracas and orchestra, and Marcelo Gaete's "Lacandonia," for djembe and orchestra.
Yes, those are unusual combinations.
"For audiences that are used to attending classical music concerts, these two pieces are a surprise regardless of the place you perform," Gallardo said. "But music is a universal language. I think the people in Alaska will welcome them."
Know and go:
What: The Juneau Symphony presents "World Beats," with percussionist Ricardo Gallardo.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium.
Tickets: Hearthside Books, the door or 586-HORN.
The program also includes Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance from Gayane"; Mozart's "Symphony No. 25, Mvt. 1"; Borodin's "Polovtsian Dance from Prince Igor"; and Gershwin's "American in Paris."
"I thought it would be cool to do things that explore the different ways that rhythm is used in the orchestra," symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett said. "It really demands a lot of really focused energy, especially focused counting. Keeping it all together is a real challenge in this one."
Born in Mexico City, Gallardo has toured all over Europe and the Americas. He founded Tambuco, one of the best-known percussion ensembles in the world, in 1993.
Wiley Pickett guest-conducted a few years ago for the Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra, when he met Gallardo. The percussionist was the featured soloist on the same two pieces he will play this weekend in Juneau.
"They're both a little unusual," Wiley Pickett said. "These days, most of the time when you have a percussion concerto, percussionists play a whole battery of instruments. They'll set up a timpani, snare drum, gong.
"It sounds improbable, that you could possibly have maracas as the solo instrument," he said. "It wasn't until I heard him play. It's mind-blowing what he can do with the maracas."
The Venezuelan maracas hails from the flatlands of Venezuela and Columbia - where generations of street musicians have honed an intricate, multirhythmic technique through the oral tradition. The instruments also have been used by magicians and shamans to accompany chantings.
Because the musicians are not classically trained, it's virtually impossible to find a school where one can study the Venezuelan maracas.
"It's like a banjo," Pickett said. "You learn it from another great player."
Ricardo Lorenz wrote "Pataruco" in 1999 for Chicago maracas player Ed Harris, the only other person in the world who could competently play it, Pickett said.
Gallardo and Lorenz have been friends from years. Lorenz used the rhythmic techniques he picked up from the street musicians and tried to write them into "Pataruco."
"It's like he's trying to be inspired by the great concertos of the 19th century - these almost heroic piano concerts or violin concertos that were so epic," Gallardo said. "He tried to play with that grandiosity, but using the maracas, which is almost funny. It's a very special sense of humor that he has."
Lorenz, a Michigan State professor who grew up in Venezuela, has a ticket to fly to Juneau today and attend this weekend's concerts. But he's finishing a commissioned piece and, as of Wednesday, there was some question whether he could make it.
Marcelo Gaete wrote "Lacandonia" for Gallardo to perform with the Mexico City Philharmonic.
Gaete is a 30-something extreme adventurer. He wrote "Lacandonia" after venturing on a two-month survivalist journey into the Lacandona rain forest, deep in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. At the time, the Zapatistas were rebelling.
"It sort of tells the story of his time in the jungle," Wiley Pickett said. "It's got all these wonderful atmospheric sounds."
The djembe is an African drum shaped like an hourglass and played between the knees. The single drum carries a lot of dynamic range and color - very low and very high contrasting sounds.
"You could establish a very well-developed musical discourse thanks to the versatility of this instrument," Gallardo said.
Contact Korry Keeker at 523-2268 or email@example.com.