With a more than 60-year history and ties to one of the great cellists of the 20th century, Pablo Casals, as well as his namesake annual festival, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra has become one of the most important classical institutions in Central America and the Caribbean Basin.
The orchestra remains little known in the continental United States, but its profile will no doubt get a boost Aug. 6 when it presents a concert in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall that is highlighted by several significant firsts.
“I’m glad we are coming,” said music director and principal conductor Maximiano Valdés. “I think there are wonderful things happening musically in Puerto Rico of a very good level. People don’t know about us, so this is a good occasion to show what we do.”
Not only will the appearance mark the 68-member orchestra’s debut in the Windy City, but it will also be the ensemble’s first performance on the U.S. mainland since 2004 and its first outside of Puerto Rico since 2005.
“The orchestra is very excited,” orchestra manager Yabetza Vivas said. “They just want to be there and play in this really wonderful hall. It’s a dream for a lot of our musicians to play there.”
The concert is presented by the 22-year-old National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, 3015 W. Division, the only such institution outside of the American island territory devoted to celebrating its culture and heritage.
As part of the orchestra’s visit, some of its members will present an educational performance to 30 to 60 area high-school students at the museum. “It’s part of what we want as an orchestra — not just to perform but to connect with a community,” Vivas said.
After the Spanish-born Casals completed his musical studies in Barcelona and Madrid, he went on to enjoy a legendary international career that took him everywhere, from the White House to the world’s finest concert halls. In 1955, he traveled to Puerto Rico, where his mother had been born to Catalan parents.
He moved to the island the following year and organized the Casals Festival, which became an annual offering, drawing some of the world’s most prestigious artists. He ran the event until his death in 1973 at age 96, and it has continued to flourish since.
Through the efforts of Casals, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1958 to serve as the festival’s house ensemble. Funded by the Puerto Rican government, it is still associated with the event, but it now has an active fall-to-spring season of concerts and outreach activities.
Valdés, a former music director of New York’s Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, took over his Puerto Rican post in 2008.
“I am from Chile,” he said, “and there is not much difference in terms of the language and the culture. The human relationships are very much the same. The Puerto Ricans are more tropical than we are, but, nevertheless, it was a very easy understanding, and I had a very good rapport with the orchestra.”
Unlike many orchestras, which have musicians with a range of nationalities and backgrounds, Valdés estimates that about 98 percent of the players in this ensemble come from Puerto Rico. Many got their start via a network of free music schools across the island and went on to study at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico, which Casals established in 1959.
“It is a good orchestra that can perform properly, well and with intelligence,” the conductor said.
While the ensemble performs the expected staples of European classical music, Valdés has put an emphasis on Spanish, Latin-American and American composers, and the orchestra makes a point of performing Puerto Rican popular music.
“Our audiences love this music and grew up listening to it,” he said.
At the request of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the ensemble will highlight its homeland in Chicago, presenting “Sonidos de Mi Isla (Sounds of My Island),” a program of popular and classical works by composers associated with Puerto Rico.
The concert will open with Ernesto Cordero’s “Mariandá,” which the orchestra commissioned some years ago for the Casals Festival.
“It’s a very Puerto Rican piece,” Valdés said. “It has an atmosphere and orchestral color that brings up images of Puerto Rico, so much so that we chose it to promote [the island] in a tourist program organized by the government.”
Other works include “Divertimento del Sur (Fun of the South)” by Héctor Campos Parsi, who like Aaron Copland and Philip Glass, studied with famed French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and “Me he perdido (I’ve Lost Myself)” by Angélica Negrón, who has received commissions from the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics.
The evening will end with popular Puerto Rican music, including Juan Morel Campos’ “Felices días (Happy Days),” an elegant example of a traditional danza or dance, and an instrumental version of Rafael Hernández’s “Preciosa,” which Valdés called the “hymn of Puerto Rico.”
“Everyone,” he said “will cheer when they hear that.”