Part travelogue, part contemporary music concert, the Philadelphia Orchestra's latest program in its Sound Waves series goes to places more heard about than heard in classical music circles - Latin American territories once dominated by the Incas.
Titled "The Inca Trail," the concert at 7 p.m. Friday at the Kimmel Center explores old and new music from Latin America, though for all the video components promised by the program, guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, a native of Peru and a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, isn't out to create musical time-travel to the Andes Mountains before the Spanish conquerors arrived.
The conductor calls the concert "a modern-day laboratory where forgotten artistic treasures are unearthed and new music from the region is commissioned. Our ambition is that, as a result of this work, musicians and audiences throughout the world will be able to access the depth of this legacy."
Thanks to his nonprofit foundation, also named The Inca Trail, Harth-Bedoya has showcased Latin American music in 100 concerts from Chicago to Leipzig since 2007 - similar to Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project that explores music along trading routes between the Far East and Europe.
Harth-Bedoya's project comes at a time when modern Latin American composers are making major marks in the international classical world - though many names on the program will be unfamiliar to Philadelphians. And there are more where they came from.
"Sometimes you find unbelievably talented composers [in Peru] who don't read or write music. You play them symphonic music, and they can take it apart but don't have the means to write anything down. And they're sitting on a heap of repertoire. They know many different versions of folk songs," says American/Peruvian composer Gabriela Lena Frank, one of eight featured in Friday's concert, including popular Argentinian-born, Boston-based Osvaldo Golijov.
"There's a new generation - and I hope I'm a part of it - that's being noticed . . . ," says Ecuadorean composer Diego Luzuriaga, whose Responsorio is in Friday's concert. "Quite a few are reinventing nationalism . . . using our own folk traditions and rhythms in a contemporary musical setting,"
How that works: In Frank's Illapa, Tone Poem for Flute and Orchestra, the soloist (who portrays Illapa, the Inca weather god) is expected to forget about Western training that calls for gracefully rounded phrase endings. Frank wants a sharp crescendo.
As for Luzuriaga, "If you go to folk festivals during the solstices high up in the Andes, you hear drumming not for one minute or 10 minutes but three days. . . . I thought, why not compose a piece in that vein . . . but instead of just one drum and flute, can you use a symphony orchestra?"
Most important, each composer represents a hard-to-imagine confluence of musical cultures that make their compositional personalities singular and formidable. A former student at Penn, Golijov draws from Latin American culture as well as his Eastern European Jewish heritage. Frank's father is Jewish Lithuanian; her mother is Peruvian of Chinese descent.
Though Luzuriaga has a doctorate from Columbia University and has had fellowships at Paris' ultraprogressive IRCAM computer music workshop, he comes from the remote Loja province of Ecuador, where he grew up speaking archaic Spanish and hearing centuries-old folk songs based on pentatonic scales associated with Japanese music.
"There's a theory that 20,000 years ago, the Americas were populated by people from East Asia. There must be some connection," he said. "When my music has been played in Tokyo, people said my melodies sound Japanese. I thought I was composing Ecuadorean music."
Many mysteries remain around the Inca civilization – which represented a consolidation of other cultures dating back centuries. Engineering feats - the 15th-century mountain city of Machu Picchu, any number of large stone temples, and the Inca Trail - were confoundingly achieved in a world where the wheel hadn't been invented.
Though much of the indigenous population died with the arrival of the Spanish colonists, survivors asserted their artistic identities in covert ways, sometimes working their own non-Christian symbolism into wood carving and other art created for New World cathedrals. One artist incorporated his own self-portrait into The Last Supper, peering out of the painting from the Judas seat.
Musical holdings in these cathedrals have been investigated only in recent years. A piece on Friday's program, Coleccion de musica virreinal, is one such work retrieved from obscurity - the creation of a bishop who wrote down 18th-century popular music.
Yet only a handful of classical composers (Villa-Lobos, Ginastera) have emerged until recently. Even now, they arrive by fluky circumstances. Luzuriaga, 55, collected folk songs from villages so remote they weren't even accessible by road, but not until age 27 did he pursue the formal training that made him the composer he is today - mainly because he was inspired by symphony orchestras he heard on the radio.
Had Frank, now 38, been raised in Peru (where her parents met during her father's Peace Corps stint), she wouldn't be a composer at all. In some traditional circles, women are discouraged from playing musical instruments. And Peruvians with hearing disabilities (Frank is partially deaf) have, in the past, been institutionalized.
Much evolution is evident. Venezuela's El Sistema, a network of youth orchestras that produced the Los Angeles Philharmonic's celebrated young music director Gustavo Dudamel, has caught on in other Latin American countries. Lima will soon have the state-of-the-art performing arts center Gran Teatro Nacional.
Luzuriaga has had opera productions in Quito and has been decorated by the government. But in Philadelphia, where he has lived for the last several years with his wife and three children (one of his daughters needs specialized medical attention not available in Ecuador), he is virtually unknown. He lives quietly (partly by choice), teaching at Friends' Central School, and is poised to do his best work.
"It's commonplace to complain, 'The country doesn't do anything for me. I need money! I need scholarships!' And maybe that's true," says Luzuriaga. "But the most important thing is the melodies of my childhood, the melodies I heard in the Andes. Those were provided by my country. That's not a small gift. And I'm using them all the time."
Philadelphia Orchestra: The Inca Trail
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.