By Jon W. Sparks
Special to The Commercial Appeal
When the Memphis Symphony Orchestra presents its Masterworks concerts this weekend, it will be led by maestro Carlos Miguel Prieto, a rising conductor on the world scene and very much an expert in the program.
The four scheduled works include three by composers from Prieto's native Mexico and concludes with a performance of the towering Shostakovich Symphony No. 5. Prieto grew up in Mexico City with those influences all around him and his family. His grandparents knew Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud. His father was an MIT engineer who became a concert cellist and was friends with Shostakovich.
"I do a lot of Shostakovich, almost every week of the year," Prieto said in an interview this week. "From my early years as a young boy I was hooked by Shostakovich. I've performed all 15 of his symphonies several times and I feel I understand him, and I greatly admire him as a man and as a great artist."
Shostakovich's Fifth is a remarkable work, done in 1937 as the composer was walking a tightrope of creative integrity even as government officials were pressuring him to hew to Soviet doctrine. The premiere of the symphony was an enormous success with the public.
As Shostakovich was navigating his treacherous political currents, Mexico in the early 20th century was undergoing an extraordinary nationalist renaissance. Three works by three composers of that time are on the MSO program, "the most emblematic Mexican work of that time," Prieto says.
José Pablo Moncayo's "Huapango" is based in folkloric tradition and is, Prieto says, "a great celebratory piece, well orchestrated."
Carlos Chavez was influential not only in music but also in the arts, having created the Ministry of Culture in Mexico.
Chavez wrote "Sinfonia India," which, Prieto says, "takes as its starting point original melodies of different pre-Hispanic cultures in Mexico, taking themes of different places around the country." Prieto has sent original pre-Hispanic percussion instruments that will be featured in the performance.
The third work is the celebrated "Janitzio" by Silvestre Revueltas, which, Prieto says, is "one of the shortest and happiest of his pieces. He was an incredibly talented composer who did not write so much but everything he wrote has been touched by this genius."
The three Mexican works and the Shostakovich were all composed within a few years of each other in the 1930s to early 1940s.
And the composers and their works exerted tremendous influence on Prieto. "I knew those names and their music throughout my career and I've been playing and recording these pieces," he says. "I just did 'Sinfonia India' and 'Janitzio' in Madrid last week, so I do these pieces quite a lot and I have my own tradition with them."
These are works that are, Prieto says, completely understandable and enjoyable at first hearing. "The four works in this program are masterpieces and they share the attribute of being accessible."