Hispanic Classics 

A renowned Mexican conductor visits to conduct the underappreciated Catalina Chamber Orchestra

Right now, the members of the Catalina Chamber Orchestra are no doubt quivering with excitement over their Jan. 28 engagement with Enrique Bátiz, Mexico's leading conductor and a figure familiar from dozens of recordings with European labels.

Come Jan. 29, the day after the concert, will they still be quivering? Numb? Dazed? The music on the program is easy on the ear, but much of it is difficult to play. Bátiz is a demanding character, so the encounter will not exactly be a relaxing break for the orchestra. And if the program succeeds in its goal of drawing a significant Hispanic crowd, the experience could be even more energizing for the orchestra--and, beyond that, more draining--than usual.

According to the orchestra's music director, Enrique Lasansky, the group is working with the Mexican consulate and the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to stir interest in the Latino community.

"Hopefully," he says, "some of the people who come to this concert for the first time will come to concerts in the future."

That doesn't sound like a firm audience-retention plan; more of a sure thing is the artistic benefit of Bátiz's guest stint.

Bátiz is the permanent guest conductor of London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Born in 1942, he launched his career in the 1960s as a pianist, studying conducting along the way. In 1971, he became founder, director and conductor of the prominent State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra, which he has continued to run to this day, aside from a seven-year stint with the Mexico City Philharmonic.

Bátiz tends to produce tightly controlled, high-impact performances. For CD labels including EMI and ASV, he has made 145 recordings, largely of Latin American and Spanish music, but also big chunks of Russian and French repertory and other material.

"Our assumption was if we had him play Hispanic music, that would relate better to the Hispanic community than a Germanic program," says Lasansky. Bátiz's concert with the Catalina Chamber Orchestra will include compact, colorful pieces by Albéniz, Rodrigo, Turina, Ponce and Villa-Lobos, plus Aaron Copland's Three Latin-American Sketches. Something different lies at the center of the program: Mozart's elegant Concerto for Flute and Harp, with soloists Brian Luce and Carrol McLaughlin from the University of Arizona music faculty.

Lasansky and Bátiz have the same manager, who worked out a deal: Lasansky would guest-conduct Bátiz's orchestra (which he did last year), and Bátiz would reciprocate by ascending the podium of the Catalina Chamber Orchestra.

"This orchestra gets the benefit of working with a very experienced conductor," Lasansky points out. "This can only help the orchestra to grow artistically. Any time you work with a guy like that, you come out ahead."

Furthermore, the appearance by Bátiz should call attention to an ensemble that, despite 16 years of experience, still struggles to fill the seats at the Berger Performing Arts Center.

"A lot of people have never seen the orchestra play," Lasansky laments. "They don't know that we have a viable and professional chamber orchestra. We've come a long way since we started. The orchestra has been playing at a very high level for quite a few years now, but a lot of people don't know about the group, because we have limited marketing possibilities."

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