Your world, on shuffle

By Lawrence Cosentino

MSU composer blends Cuban, symphonic sounds

Get down. Listen up. Get down. How’s that for a history of Western music in six words? It’s also a neat preview of Michigan State University composer Ricardo Lorenz’ massive Latinsymphonic collision piece “Rumba Sinfonica.”

For years, two men dreamed of a taboo liaison between full symphony orchestra and Latin dance machine: Lorenz and Jorge Gomez, founder of Grammy-winning Latin combo Tiempo Libre.

Their dream comes alive Thursday night, when plugged-in, seven-piece Tiempo Libre joins the unplugged, seventy-or-so-piece MSU Symphony for a postmodern music party where people listen up AND get down. (For good measure, Tiempo Libre will return after “Rumba” for a round of pure dance frenzy, minus the symphony.)

“This is my generation,” Lorenz said. “We can cross these borders, because they’re artificial. There’s no reason why these two mediums can’t make love.”

Lorenz’ proud partner in musical miscegenation, Gomez, knows all about straddling two worlds. Gomez and his Tiempo Libre bandmates learned classical music at the top Havana conservatories, then hit the streets and partied to hot-blooded dance music that was discouraged by Communist authorities. He’s deeply committed to the philosophy and experience embodied in “Rumba Sinfonica.” “I grew up with both worlds, and I had to put them together,” Gomez said. “It’s my life, and now it’s your life, too.”

Gomez put Tiempo Libre together in 2001, after imigrating to the United States. Born in Venezuela, Lorenz grew up in a similar swirl of Latin sounds. He came to the United States in 1982 and has since become a consummate composer.

Both men often wondered how to bring their musical halves together, but “Rumba Sinfonica” sprouted for real in the late ‘90s, when the Chicago Symphony tapped Lorenz to run an ambitious outreach program to the Latin community.

Lorenz picked some of city’s top community bands, teamed them with Chicago Symphony musicians and let the two styles collide, but not fuse. “‘Rumba Sinfonica’ when you bring in 10 or more canned items to donate to the Lansing City Rescue Mission Food Drive is just a continuation of that, only on a huge scale,” Lorenz said.

Later, while teaching at Indiana University, Lorenz saw Gomez give a workshop on Latin music to classical violinists.

“I thought, ‘This is my guy,’” Lorenz said.

They found themselves in perfect agreement on how the piece should sound. “It’s not a fusion,” Lorenz said. “The orchestra behaves like an orchestra, and the Latin group doesn’t pretend to be a chamber ensemble.”

True to its nature, the orchestra in “Rumba Sinfonica” swells up and deflates, speeds up and slows down, beats around the bush, blushes, teases.

“At the beginning, people keep sitting and listen,” Gomez said. “They don’t know what’s going to happen. They don’t know what to do.”

When Gomez kicks Tiempo Libre into the mix, dancing on stage, the agenda becomes as clear as the clarion clack of the clave. (“Rumba Sinfonica” literally means “symphonic party.”)

What follows is a sort of salsa slam, as the dance combo runs a defiant rumba tune through a series of Cuban traditional forms, including cha-cha-cha. Tension builds as the symphony reacts, groping for a way to join the party. Can this relationship work? Finally, the elephantine orchestra swoops the Latin band up like a tango partner with a supporting blast of brass. The suppressed love pops like a spaghetti strap. “That’s a great moment,” Gomez agreed. “That’s when the people dance.”

“It’s not from another world,” Gomez said. “It’s from this world. You can do it.”

After intermission, Tiempo Libre will return to play timba, its own mélange of Latin music. Timba is a dense, intense dance music that’s often called Cuba’s counterpart to salsa, but it’s more than that. It crams in
elements from Afro- Cuban, Latin jazz, funk, hip-hop and even Bach-like
counterpoint. It’s pop music, but it takes a lot of experience and
training to master.

This year Tiempo Libre will take the concept further with a new CD fusing Bach with Latin rhythms. Gomez said it’s a
more logical fit than it may seem.

“Cuban music is based on
mathematics, and it’s the same thing with Bach — taka-taka-taka-tak,”
Gomez said. “Music has always been about crossovers,” Lorenz commented.
“If it wasn’t, we’d still be playing music from the Middle Ages.”

Lorenz encourages his students to put their iPods in ‘shuffle’ mode and
fill it out with all kinds of music, not just things they like.

‘shuffle,’ you reverberate, you get these great segues from one style
of music to another,” he said. “I’m a ‘shuffle’ freak.”

Tiempo Libre

With MSU Symphony Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22 $14-28