Since its 2007 premiere by the Minnesota Orchestra, composer Ricardo Lorenz's Rumba Sinfónica has been played by 22 different orchestras — an astonishing number for a piece of contemporary orchestral music. But its popularity is easily explained.
Scored for symphony orchestra and a Latin band — specifically Grammy-nominated Dancing With the Stars guests Tiempo Libre — it's a kind of orchestral travelogue through the history of popular Cuban music. Lorenz says the melding of styles is de rigueur in Cuba.
"That is the story of Cuban music," he notes. "You go back 100 years or more to [Cuban music style] the son. That in itself was an attempt by operetta musicians from Spain who also wanted to gig in clubs."
The Venezuelan-born Lorenz conceived Rumba Sinfónica as a project for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, but it came to fruition when he met Tiempo Libre bandleader Jorge Gomez during a conference at Indiana University. The popular band — whose members came together at Cuba's national conservatory — was already a tight unit that understood both the classical- and the Latin-music worlds.
Tiempo Libre will perform Rumba Sinfónica with conductor Carl Topilow and the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra, plus a set of high-energy timba music, at Severance Hall as a benefit for CIM.
The 28-minute piece opens with the orchestra attempting to evoke the streetwise sound of rumba, but struggling without the clave, the distinctive Afro-Cuban percussion instrument. Once that high "tick tick" sound enters, though, everything else falls into place. It follows a roughly chronological path through the history of popular Cuban musical styles, "as if they are fighting for control of what Cuban music is," says Lorenz.
It's not just an arrangement of popular styles, but a fully orchestrated composition informed equally by the composer and band. Lorenz says it was created collaboratively at Gomez's apartment. "I would bring material from home," he says, "and we would do almost like jam sessions to build it. By doing it this way, Jorge had ownership from the very beginning."