The Seven Samurai turned Japanese farmers into a fighting force. The Magnificent Seven turned Mexican peasants into a mini-army.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that seven musical alchemists in Tiempo Libre converted Johann Sebastian Bach into un hombre Cubano, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra into a plush back-up band for “Besame Mucho,” and a woman who looked remarkably like former county commissioner Jennifer Roberts into the leader of an impromptu conga line of 150 people dancing up and down the aisles of Belk Theater.
Friday’s pops concert, which repeats Saturday – not that such a thing is really repeatable – consisted of three parts.
The orchestra began both halves of the show with Latin-flavored pieces, George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and Mexican composer José Moncayo’s “Huapango.” Vividly played, but a bit staid compared to what followed.
Tiempo Libre jammed, sometimes with the orchestra and sometimes without, on medleys of sones, boleros, cha-chas and mambos (not to mention that final conga). And the classically-trained musicians of the Cuban-born septet riffed on pieces by Bach.
Old Johann takes this treatment well. He’s been orchestrated, electrified and re-instrumentalized for 262 years. Occasionally, someone makes a top-40 single from one of his tunes: The Toys did that with a minuet in G, turned into “A Lover’s Concerto” in 1965.
But when that same minuet turned up Friday, scored for blazing brass and congas, neither you nor J.S.B. would have recognized it for long. That minuet mostly provided a rhythm for dancers, though he might have liked that: He wrote plenty of dance music.
The septet has four basic components. Trumpeter Raul Rodriguez and saxophonist Luis Beltran Castillo trade riffs and explore melodies. Conga player Leandro González and drummer Armando Arce lay down steady beats, backed by the burly bass of birthday boy Wilvi Rodriguez.
Pianist and musical director Jorge Gomez plays the keyboard Bach that sounds like Bach, but he also makes the piano a percussion instrument as needed. I’d describe front man Xavier Mili’s job as crowd arousal: He sings in half-spoken, half-melodic phrases, inspires dancers with swivel-hipped moves and emits a few strange little squeals of joy. (Think of a rubber-tipped chair pulled across a linoleum floor.)
Jacomo Bairos, who’s coming to the end of his third and final year as associate and then guest conductor of this orchestra, spent a lot of his time beaming at the visiting band from the podium. (Aside from obvious cultural connections, he can appreciate the skills of musicians living in Miami, where he stays part of the time.)
When he blended the orchestra with the septet, the bigger group tended to get lost. That’s no fault of his or the sound technician’s; Tiempo Libre plays loudly, and the mix was good where I sat (row P of the orchestra), but the jazzy players can overwhelm the set-back symphony strings.
The band’s name translates to “free time,” a reference not only to improvisation with time signatures but the freedom it inspires in normally buttoned-down concertgoers. If you attend tonight, be prepared to join the conga line.