There's a rich vein of classical music from Latin America, largely unknown in North America. It ranges from music rooted in popular and folk dance tunes to those firmly in the European art music tradition.
Carlos Prieto, one of Mexico's senior cellists and a longtime supporter of contemporary music, made his Kennedy Center Terrace Theater debut Wednesday, playing from a wide range of Latin sounds. Prieto and pianist Edison Quintana brought a world premiere with them: "Espacios," a 14-minute rhapsody by Juan Orrego-Salas, a Chilean who once taught composition at Indiana University. "Espacios" is a painting of shifting moods and textures and asks for a robust cello line and nimble piano playing, with shades of Maurice Ravel's sparkling impressionism and Paul Hindemith's thick tunefulness. But for every substantive episode came bits of rambling filler, and it left a thin overall impression.
By contrast, Mario Lavista's "Tres Danzas Seculares" (1994), heard here in its U.S. premiere, drew a livelier and more colorful picture with a spare palette. The final, folksy dance made everyone smile: It ends with blocky chords played by the piano under an amusing, rhythmically driving cello part. But these new works couldn't hold up against Astor Piazzolla's "Le Grand Tango," which has what the others lacked: an easy, seductive charm that flows effortlessly from memorable tunes and a strong, clear harmonic foundation.
Dmitri Shostakovich's Cello Sonata (1934) and Zoltan Kodaly's Sonata for Solo Cello (1915), played before intermission, made the program sound complete. Despite their age, these works still sound edgy and modern. Prieto played them with conviction.