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"Lila Downs in Concert" Review- a very special night at the CSO

By Debra Davy

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On June 28, 2016, singer-songwriter and multi-Grammy Award winning artist Lila Downs gave a Special Concert with members of her band (Rafael Gomez on guitars, Sinuhe Padilla-Isunza on jarana and guitar, George Saenz, Jr. on accordion, and Yayo Serka, percussionist) along with Conductor Donato Cabrera conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan.

Lila Downs; photo courtesy of Chino Lemus

Cabrera, Resident Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony and Music Director of their Youth Orchestra, as well as Music  Director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, the California Symphony, and the New Hampshire Music Festival, handled the baton with grace, energy, and a deft hand. The Mexican-American vocalist Downs, whose amazing voice spans three octaves, presented both traditional songs and especially those of her own and her husband, Paul Cohen’s composing, mostly from her award-winning 2015 release “Bullets and Chocolate”. She was called back for a double encore.

Donato Cabrera; Photo courtesy of Lindsay Hale

The program opened with the CSO performing “Danzon No. 2”, a full- orchestra composition by prominent Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, one of the most frequently performed orchestral Mexican contemporary classical music pieces. Marquez, like Downs, uses musical forms and styles of his native Mexico, incorporating them into his compositions. The piece “expresses and reflects” on the dance style named Danzon, which has it’s roots in Cuba, but is an important part of the folklore of the Mexican state of Veracruz.

Donato Cabrera; photo courtesy of Kristen Loken

Downs enchanted the audience with her simpatico blend of gorgeous costume, warm commentary and that splendid voice. Clad in a multi-colored dress with white sash, doubtlessly of her own creation, and fun white platform heels, her long dark hair cascading, her big brown eyes flashing with emotion, the graceful arms undulating with the music, Downs sang her heart out. Wrapping herself in different shawls- a black one covering her for songs about “The Day of the Dead”, a feathery cape to enhance a ballad where she cooed like a dove, the opera-trained voice broke hearts. Downs can and does hold notes for an astonishing length of time, but never uses this technique or any vocal histrionics- the sounds are all controlled and true.

Lila Downs and Donato Cabrera; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

Una Cruz de Madera”, “Son de Difuntos”, “La Promesa”, “La Patria Madrina”, and “Viene la Muerta Echando Rasero”, from “Balas Y Chocolate”, ("Bullets and Chocolate) were all crowd-pleasers, releasing shouts of joy from the audience at their recognition. The songs contain globally-influenced instrumentation, and lyrics embracing the themes of history, tragedy, love, and the embrace of a proud cultural heritage. The songs are exciting and important, the band hot and talented, and the accompanying orchestra soared right along with this beautiful music in a concert that was inspired and arousing.

Lila Downs with members of her band and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

The audience especially thrilled to the traditional songs, “La Iguana”, which featured Downs undulating playfully, “La Martiniara”, a song about a beautiful girl and death, and “La Llorona”, (“The Weeping Woman”), about a legendary ghost who lost her children and cries, but of whom one must take care as she kidnaps wandering ninos. During one song  Downs knelt on the stage covered by a shawl, during another she proudly sported a sombrero, and in-between the artist accepted shouts of approval  and flowers, and spoke to the audience of her humanitarian concerns.

Lila Downs; photo courtesy of Todd Wolfson

This was a never-to-be-forgotten performance by a world-class singer, a great band, a super conductor and a splendid orchestra.

Lila Downs and Donato Cabrera with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg


For other great performances  at the CSO, including Special Concerts, and side series, go to the CSO website








Published on Jul 07, 2016

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