Danzon No. 2

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            A native of the Mexican state of Sonora, Márquez is known for his adroit incorporation of Mexican musical forms and styles into his compositions.   One of Mexico’s eminent contemporary composers, he is widely popular with Latin Americans for the accessibility and attractiveness of his compositions. Recipient of an impressive list of honors, his recent works include a commission from the San Antonio Symphony, a cello concerto, and an homage to Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary. 

            After early musical training on trombone, violin, and piano, he became a student at the Conservatorio Nacional in the early nineteen seventies.  He then went on to study in Europe with the eminent French composer, Jacques Castérèrede.  He subsequently was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with the well-known American composer Morton Subotnick.  Under the influence of the latter composer, earlier on he was active in a compositional style that featured mixed media excursions in dance, theatre, and film.   Computers, tape, electro-acoustic devices, unusual percussion instruments, and actors all contributed to an avant-garde reputation. But all has not been on the cutting edge, for he is also known for his interest in popular urban musical styles, expressed in more conventional ensembles.  His later move to a personal idiom made full use of traditional Mexican urban music—but not necessarily “folk” music.  Representative of these compositions that have brought him worldwide fame are the eight Danzónes for orchestra. They take their stylistic cue from the music of the Mexican state of Veracruz, as well as of Cuba.  Danzon No. 2, perhaps his most well known work for orchestra, was commissioned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and had its première in 1994.

            A danzón is a formal ballroom dance, similar in some ways to the tango, with much of the latter’s passion and rhythms, but with its own intricate footwork. The habanera of Cuba is more or less an antecedent of the danzón, as it migrated to the cafes and dance halls of urban Mexico.  The seductive, often melancholy, nature of the dance is irresistible, both in the simple bands of the dance halls, and equally in the masterful symphonic settings of Márquez.  It lives on in Cuba and Mexico, danced by an older generation.

            Danzón No. 2, rather than a simple exposition of a dance, in typical “square,” balanced sections, is an episodic exploration of the danzón’s varied moods.  It opens quietly and elegantly with extensive woodwind solos, with intensity and sophistication.  A new and vigorous episode, introduced by the piano, leads to “punchy” accents, led by the brass.  A sudden calm is quickly broken by smearing trombones, and yet another catchy idea.  The piano then leads stylishly and pensively to the palm court environs of the ballroom.  The serenity can’t last long, and a return to previous vigor ideas ensues, with a stylish trumpet solo, ending with a gradually building frenzy.  A momentary quietude featuring the piccolo and piano last only a second before the drive to the smashing conclusion.

            This highly attractive paean to the danzón may be favorably compared to Ravel’s masterful and evocative La valse.  Both are sympathetic symphonic treatments of a traditional ballroom dance—but apotheoses seen through the lens of a kaleidoscope.

--Wm. E. Runyan 

© 2015 William E. Runyan