Tiempo Libre goes orchestral

It’s not easy for them, but the members of Tiempo Libre are learning to control their energy.

The seven-piece Miami band of Cuban expats pride themselves on the rhythmic explosiveness of their timba music, but when they perform Ricardo Lorenz’s new classical/popular hybrid piece Rumba Sinfonica, they must harness that force to prevent them from overpowering the symphonies with whom they’re sharing stages.

Tiempo Libre leader Jorge Gomez, when asked about his band’s biggest challenge with Rumba Sinfonica, quickly responds: “Most of the time it’s the volume. The symphony has like 50 musicians, right? We are seven, but we are so loud. So we have to play so soft, pianissimo, to keep a good balance.”

Lorenz, a veteran composer who teaches at Michigan State University, is a native of Venezuela who moved to the United States in 1982. A product of the classical world but equally captivated by Latin American popular music, he has long attempted to bring the two traditions together. An early attempt in Chicago found him uniting chamber groups with Chicano street musicians, but for Rumba Sinfonica, he envisioned something grander and more ambitious: a full-blown conversation between a rumba-playing group and a symphony orchestra. The fascinating result is a half-hour piece carried by a strong melodic theme, weaving together the percussive grooves of Tiempo Libre with the harmonic grace of a classical ensemble. The piece, which premiered last November in Minnesota, will be performed for only the fourth time this weekend when Tiempo Libre joins forces with the San Antonio Symphony for Fiesta POPS.

“I’ve also tried to bring together things as far removed as bluegrass music and Latin jazz,” Lorenz says. “There’s something about me standing at the threshold of these divisions that I enjoy a great deal, and I find satisfaction in trying to merge them and have them interact with each other.”

Years ago, while first contemplating a rumba-classical hybrid, Lorenz toyed with the idea of putting together a Latin-jazz band from scratch, but he now says that approach would have been disastrous.

“You need a very tight band like Tiempo Libre, and that’s how Tiempo Libre influenced my thinking,” Lorenz says. “When I saw them playing, I realized that they were real virtuosos on their instruments. They had a lot of exposure to classical music because they all went to conservatories in Havana, and yet they played the real thing, as they say.”

The band’s unique versatility can be traced to Gomez’s unusual roots. The product of a classical-pianist father and a musicologist mother, he began taking piano lessons at the age of 5 and absorbed his country’s various popular forms, from son to danzón to cha-cha-cha. He immersed himself in classical composition techniques while falling in love with the jazz artistry of Oscar Peterson. When he moved to Miami after a five-year stint playing with various bands in Guatemala, he was ready to form his dream band: a collective composed of highly skilled, classically trained players who wanted to play timba, a dance form which rose to popularity in Cuba in the 1980s.

“Timba is like an evolution of the Cuban music,” Gomez says. “You had the danzón, cha-cha-cha, son, rumba, and jazz, and when you mix all those things you have timba. And timba has a very contemporary sound because we use electronic instruments. We play the bass with six strings, we play with the whole drum set and timbales, we play with keyboards. We also make the harmony more jazzy.”

When Gomez put together Tiempo Libre in 2001, timba was nearly unheard in Miami. These days, he proudly notes, the city boasts “10 or 12 timba bands.”

The group’s 2005 album Arroz con Mango and its 2006 followup, Lo Que Esperabas both earned critical acclaim and Grammy nominations, and set the stage for a collaboration that would push the band and Lorenz in new directions.

“All our collaboration was with very little music notation in front of us,” Lorenz says. “The very first process of sketching out what I wanted to do and him translating it to the style of his band required very little pencil and paper. I love that, because that’s the way popular music works. In that sense, the process of creating Rumba Sinfonica was very authentic, in terms of how popular music is done, which is orally.”

Composers who’ve crossed imaginary, perceived boundaries between classical and popular, concert hall and dance club, and high-brow and low-brow, tend to risk pleasing neither faction. Even George Gershwin often faced withering attacks from critics in the ’20s and ’30s, when they argued that his most ambitious pieces were too simple to be classical and too pretentious to qualify as good pop.

“You always have to compromise,” Lorenz says. “Something as simple as volume and energy. Audiences have already been shocked by the difference in energy when Tiempo Libre is playing Rumbo Sinfonica and when they’re playing the second half of the concert when everyone in the hall is on their feet and they can’t sit down. So the level of energy is compromised, but not the level of sophistication of that music and the level of authenticity with what they’re doing with that instrument. This is an attempt at having the best of both worlds.”



Fiesta POPS with Tiempo Libre
8pm Fri-Sat,
Apr 18-19
2pm Sun, Apr 20
Majestic Theatre
226 E. Houston
(210) 226-3333

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