Gabriela Ortiz's Yanga had its world premiere late last month at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Ortiz is one of Mexico's most sought-after classical composers and her work has been performed by musicians all over the world, from soprano Dawn Upshaw to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to Kronos Quartet.
Yanga, her most recent commission, came from the LA Philharomic's music and artistic director, Gustavo Dudamel, who asked Gabriela Ortiz earlier this year to write a piece for orchestra and choir, with the choral parts sung in Spanish.
"Gabriela is one of the most talented composers in the world," Dudamel says. "Not only in Mexico, not only in our continent — in the world. She has an ability to bring colors, to bring rhythm [and] harmonies that connect with you. That is something beautiful, something unique."
Ortiz' work, Yanga, is named for a 16th century liberator of slaves in Veracruz. As the story goes, Yanga was a prince from what is now the country of Gabon, in western Africa.
"He came in the 16th century to Mexico as a slave and he managed to escape. And then with other slaves [who] also escaped from the Spanish crown, they start organizing a revolt," Ortiz says. "And finally, he was able to negotiate with the Spanish crown and founded the first free town in [North] America."
Gabriela Ortiz grew up in Mexico City. Her father was an architect and her mother was a psychoanalyst, but they were also founding members of Mexico's leading folk music ensemble, Los Folkloristas.
"During my childhood, I had the opportunity to meet people like Víctor Jara, the Chilean singer that came to Mexico. He stayed in my house," Ortiz says. "I met Mercedes Sosa ... And so I was exposed to all this music, not only from Mexico, but from Latin America."
When she was six years old, Ortiz remembers visiting a small town in the Gulf state of Veracruz with her parents. "They were doing some research about music from Veracruz, so I remember that we rented a boat through the Papaloapan River and my parents used to play folk music along with the people from Tlacotalpan," she says.
That family experience was the foundation for a piece she composed in 1995 called "Rio de las Mariposas," or "River of Butterflies."
Ortiz's music doesn't only draw from the sounds of Mexico. One day, when she was a teenager, her piano teacher introduced her to a series of pieces by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók called Mikrokosmos.
"For me, it was a window open to the 20th century music. That definitely changed my mind in a completely new way," Ortiz says. "And then I decided: I want to be a composer."
Ortiz went on to study at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música, or the National Conservatory of Music, in Mexico City and got her advanced degrees in London. She brings both influences to bear in a work commissioned by Kronos Quartet.
Altar de Muertos, a piece about the Mexican tradition Day of the Dead, uses Aztec percussion instruments called huesos de fraile (also known as ayoyotes) or "friar bones" that the musicians attach to their ankles.
"Every time they see an accent on the score, they have to step," Ortiz says. "It's a very energetic movement, very rhythmic and it has a lot of influence from the 'Danza de Concheros' ... one of the oldest dances that we know [from] when the Spanish came."
That period is also the setting for her latest work and it, too, uses percussion.
LA Phil's Gustavo Dudamel thinks Gabriela Ortiz's compositions need to be heard. "This piece deserves to be played many times because it sends a beautiful message," he says. "It shows our culture, our blood, our rhythm as one America and that beautiful connection and that beautiful message of 'libertad,' of freedom."
But getting her music into the concert hall hasn't always been easy, says the composer.
"It's even more difficult if you're a woman and if you're Latin American," Ortiz says. "Because normally, in the concert music world, people look to Europe. They don't look to Latin America. They don't know that, in Mexico, we have a very important scene of composers doing lots of things."
Gabriela Ortiz says one of the things she wants to do in her music is create a connection between tradition and the modern world, between different kinds of music and different cultures. Yanga's cross-cultural roots with a debut for an American audience just might accomplish that mission.