Argentinean composer Pablo Ortiz belongs to the generation of composers who were trained in 1970s and early '80s, a time when the tenets of serialism were sacrosanct in American conservatories and music schools. Ortiz, who received his doctorate at Columbia under Mario Davidovsky, would have been inculcated with the doctrine of serialism as the pinnacle (and, in fact, the only respectable expression) of "serious" music. Like the most successful composers of that generation, Ortiz abandoned serialism, but has taken from his training a rigorous attention to compositional detail, which, in the service of an original and fertile musical imagination, produces works that are both intellectually stimulating and aurally attractive.
Ortiz's grounding in the popular music of Argentina, particularly its rhythmic energy, is always apparent, sometimes with subtlety and sometimes with great flair. His compositional voice is most distinct in the large works that open and close this CD. Oscuro, for mixed voices and chamber ensemble, is created around a fascinating premise. He sets two poems by Mexican poets, Francisco Alaraeon and Amado Nervo, first in Spanish and then in English translation, with brief instrumental interludes interspersed in the set. Ortiz cites Gesualdo as an influence, and it's easy to hear the choral sections, particularly the Spanish settings, as madrigals, with the eccentricity of Gesualdo's chromaticism here intensified to produce rich, dense, chocolatey sonorities. They never feel heavy, though, because Ortiz surrounds them with a delicate, skittering instrumental filigree. The English settings -- leaner, less melismatic and more contrapuntal -- provide a textural contrast and allow for easier understanding of the words while maintaining a high level of harmonic inventiveness. Chanticleer, conducted by David Milnes, performs with the precision, effortless-sounding virtuosity, and warm blend for which it is acclaimed. The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players provide the lively and quirky instrumental accompaniment.
Concierto Rastrojero, for marimba and solos strings, echoes the instrumental writing of Oscuro. In the first and third movements, its high energy and the clarity and brightness of the orchestration occasionally recall Andriessen's rhythmically charged scores, but with a Latin sensibility. In the second movement, Ortiz uses rolls on the lowest notes of the marimba, accompanied by sustained strings to create a startlingly unique and sepulchral sound -- this is genuinely spooky music. Here again the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players prove to be not only fine performers, but also skilled entertainers.