Thursday, January 21, 2016

Celebrating 100 Years of Alberto Ginastera: His String Quartet No. 1


This weekend's concert with the Enso Quartet may be overshadowed by the weather forecast (if not the weather) but since the program opens with the 1st Quartet by the Argentine composer, Alberto Ginastera, let's remember that, in Buenos Aires, it is summer...

The program is scheduled for Saturday night at 8:00 in Harrisburg's Whitaker Center – preceded by a pre-concert talk I'll be offering in the hall at 7:15. In addition to the Ginastera will be an “evocation of the night” by French composer, Henri Dutilleux, called Ainsi la nuit; and then, more familiar turf on the second half of the concert with the third of Beethoven's “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59 No. 3 in C Major.

And the Enso Quartet received a Grammy nomination for their recording of all three String Quartets by Alberto Ginastera for the Naxos label. For us, they will perform the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 20.

Nick Barnard, reviewing the disc in 2009 for MusicWeb International, wrote:
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"I have enjoyed the music of Ginastera greatly before I heard this disc but I consider this a revelation—showing as it does a range and compositional technique of which, in my ignorance, I was previously unaware. I find it hard to believe that these magnificent pieces could be performed better than they are here by the Enso Quartet—seek out this group, they are clearly bound for greatness. One little foot-note; a particular quality of the ensemble that struck me as I listened was their tonal unanimity so how interesting to read that they play on a set of matched modern instruments made by London-based maker Nigel Harris: clearly magnificent instruments played to within an inch of their lives by superb musicians. If I could give this disc a standing ovation of one in my front room after listening to it I would!

"String quartet playing of jaw-dropping prowess revealing masterpieces of the 20th century quartet literature."

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In this earlier post, you can read more about the Beethoven's quartet that concludes the program and the people behind it, especially Count Andrei Razumovsky who'd asked Beethoven to write three quartets for him – and hear a performance of the complete quartet by the Orion Quartet.

In this and in a future post, it's an introduction to the two 20th Century works on the program, written by composers whose centennial anniversaries are being observed this year – Alberto Ginastera born in Buenos Aires on April 11th, 1916; and Henri Dutilleux, born in Angers, France, on January 22nd, 1916.

Though Ginastera died in 1983, only three years ago I could classify Dutilleux as “one of my favorite living composers” – he died on May 22nd, 2013, at the age of 97.

It's true Dutilleux's quartet-piece may be older than some people in the audience, composed 40 years ago, but it is probably still a new piece to most of those attending (or planning on attending) this concert – in the sense it “hasn't been heard before” or is, probably like the composer, unfamiliar. Even Ginastera, regarded as a major composer of the 20th Century, may not be that familiar to American listeners except to those in the major cities.

Writing or talking about music in the context of the composer's “catalogue,” those works he or she's produced in a lifetime, is easier with Beethoven: when I say “the Razumovsky Quartets were written in the same year he was working on the 4th and 5th Symphonies, the 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto,” chances are the average concert-goer has heard these pieces – and so you get an idea of what this particular piece is within the scope of his creative life, perhaps even his biography.

With Ginastera and Dutilleux, I should give you detailed biographies of both composers and play representative works from various stages in their careers so you'd get an idea where these particular pieces fit in. And while neither would fill a biography like Jan Swafford's recently published Beethoven: Anguish & Triumph which, at 1,054 pages, weighs in around four pounds, it's more than a blog post or two and a half-hour talk can realistically provide.

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Alberto Ginastera's cat reacts to a particularly spicy chord
How many Argentine composers other than Alberto Ginastera can you name? Surely, he didn't spring up, like Minerva, fully formed from the beginning of musical time in that Latin American nation?

Born to a Catalan father and an Italian mother, Ginastera was already studying piano, theory and composition at the age of 12 in the “Williams Conservatory,” founded by the Argentine-born composer Alberto Williams in 1893 (he had studied with Cesar Franck in Paris). While a senior in 1937, Ginastera composed a ballet, Panambí (which one reviewer in 1998 described as “a seductive work that sounds like Ravel on growth hormones”) that, after a suite was premiered at Argentina's major concert hall, Teatro Colón, established his national reputation. When the full ballet was staged for the first time in 1940, Ginastera won several national and local prizes for music.

The next year, the young composer met Aaron Copland, then on a Latin American tour with the American Ballet Caravan (they'd produced Copland's ballet, Billy the Kid). On the strength of Panambí, the company's director, Lincoln Kirstein, commissioned Ginastera to compose a ballet for them which would become Estancia. A suite of four dances from the ballet – about the life of the gauchos on a ranch in the Pampas (basically) – remains one of his most frequently performed works, and the “Danza final” (a malambo) remains his greatest hit.

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Here's Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in the Final Dance at a British Proms concert:

It doesn't get much “faster and louder” – how can you not have a standing ovation after that?! (For a somewhat cheesier performance, here's another video with the same ensemble but you can forgive them their enthusiasm when you listen to the excitement and see how much fun they're having in the process: remember, most of these performers came through “The System” in Venezuela and many were destined for lives on crime- and drug-ridden streets). 
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Unfortunately, the American dance company folded and was unable to produce Estancia, so a collection of four dances from the ballet was premiered in 1943 (the ballet itself wasn't staged at the Teatro Colón until 1953!) but the composer received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to study in America, a trip that had to be postponed because of the war. In 1941, he had already been appointed a professor of composition at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires and also the “chair of music” at the General San Martín Military School, a post he was dismissed from when Juan Perón came to power. That December (1945), he and his family moved to the United States where he studied with Copland and heard some of his music performed by the League of American Composers in New York City and by the Pan-American Union in Washington, DC.

Returning to Argentina as his international reputation grew, he helped establish a local league of composers that became the Argentine division of the International Society for Contemporary Music (known as ISCM) in 1948. He also became the director of the Conservatory in La Plata (just outside Buenos Aires), and from this year on, he would make frequent trips to Europe as a representative of Argentine music.

I mention these events in detail because it was in 1948 that he composed the 1st String Quartet on the program.

It's important to realize that, looking back on his career, Ginastera himself would later say this quartet marked the dividing line between his early style and his “second” period. He was now 32 – think of Beethoven who, at 30, was moving into what is universally called his “Middle Period” following his first set of quartets and the 1st Symphony – and what Ginastera called his “objective nationalism” with its strong influence of “creole music” like Estancia, with its overt use of gaucho folk-songs and dance rhythms.

This new 2nd Period he called his “subjective nationalism,” where, while elements of folk music are still in evidence, it's not nearly so explicit and often more like what other composers might be doing internationally but with an Argentine accent.

For one thing, this reflects what Bela Bartók had done in his own musical development, after he started quoting elements of folk music and then absorbing it into his more abstract style, what he often called “imaginary folksong.” The fingerprints of the folk style were present but the melodic and rhythmic materials were original, significant building-blocks of many of his major works, especially the 3rd, 4th, and 5th String Quartets.

Ginastera w/Students
Other aspects of the international style were absorbed into Ginastera's evolving language: he would use serialism (which most composers were using in one way or another in the 1950s) but not in any especially doctrinaire manner, influenced more by Berg and the expressionist atonality of Schoenberg than the rigorous approach of Webern and, particularly, Boulez (who even worked with serializing rhythms and dynamics as well as pitch). He would use polytonality – the presence of different layers of tonality but each strand in a different key – and “micro-tonality” (the use of quarter-tones) as well as elements of chance (the “aleatoric” music of John Cage, for instance). Above all, even though he was still disposed to “traditional forms” like the sonata or variations, he would “revitalize” them in his own, often different ways.

His music always had a rhythmic drive – often ferocious as you can hear in the Final Dance from Estancia – and he was above all fascinated by instrumental color, preferring to find new colors from combinations of standard instruments rather than using electronics. It was not unusual for his music to move along like a kaleidoscope of "sound-images" though with an underlying core of what constituted Ginastera's own “voice” so a casual listener might not notice the diversity. In other words, subjectivity aside, despite its technical variety, it would sound entirely consistent.

Keeping in mind that “dissonance” is technically a sound that implies the need for resolution – as a Dominant 7th Chord in Haydn is still technically a dissonance needing to resolve to a tonic chord – Ginastera's use of dissonance is often more a matter of color or rhythm (in a sense) than just the idea of creating harsh sounds. You can hear this in the aggressive opening of the 1st Quartet - which in the process generates a lot of the music's drive.

Here is the Cuarteto Latinoamericano with Ginastera's String Quartet No. 1, complete in one audio-clip:

Just listening to the first few minutes of the opening, this is not your grandfather's collection of folksy dance tunes! Even the tempo indication – Allegro violento ed agitato (Violently Fast and Agitated) – lets you know he's aiming right between the eyes.

While the contrasts are between different types of violence and agitation in the first movement, mostly in the sense of rhythmic propulsion with a savage folkloric theme of limited scope over hammered, crunching chords, the second movement, beginning at 4:25, brings in an aspect of “magic” with its element of the supernatural (that old black magic), more than a Disney-style sense of fantasy, but with contrasts between the colors of playing close to the bridge (the glassy sounds at 4:35 and again at 7:00), the plucked strings against the hypnotically repeated perpetual motion on a single tone that expands at 6:00, which itself contrasts with the odd scurrying passages, not to forget the col legno passage at 7:18 where the players tap on the strings with the wooden backs of the bow rather than the bow-hairs! So much color and so much variety in just a few minutes.

The long slow movement, beginning at 8:00 – a contrast in length as well as tempo after two brief and concentrated fast movements (one violent, one eerily mysterious) – again brings Bartók to mind, his famous brand of “night music” where, rather than the romantic moonlit nocturnes of Chopin, we hear the sounds of nature complete with insects and other strange noises we're not sure of and, on occasion, even frogs (Bartók's son Peter, in his memoir, My Father, describes how the composer was fascinated by the sounds of the night at his uncle's farm, especially the frogs). The music slowly unfolds in simple intervals creating long sustained chords, full of silences and anticipation with fragments of melodies slow to evolve. These chords are based on (or comparable to) the tunings one might expect from a guitar. And the expansiveness is something one might experience alone under the stars of the great Pampas of rural Argentina.

The final movement – a dance – begins at 16:25 and is marked allegramente rustico or “cheerfully rustic,” the closest thing Ginastera has created to an overt folk-dance in this quartet, especially in its contrasting 5/8 sections. And while four string players might “kill” to be able to create the kind of “louder/faster” frenzy a huge orchestra can bring to, say, the conclusion of Estancia, there are ways of building to a sonorous and rhythmically exciting end.

Alberto Ginastera
In the end, Ginastera has created a string quartet – something so associated with European cuklture and its history of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms (and Bartók) – that is at home on any world stage and brings with it echoes of his homeland, letting everyone else know that, yes, there is music in Argentina – and it sounds like this.

There is much more to Ginastera's music in the 35 years he continued to compose – interestingly, in the last years of his life, he talked about how his music was becoming less aggressive, returning not so much to the folk music of his past but to the folk music before his past.

“This change is taking the form of a kind of reversion, a going back to the primitive America of the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This influence in my music I feel as not folkloric, but – how to say it? – as a kind of metaphysical inspiration. In a way, what I have done is a reconstitution of the transcendental aspect of the ancient pre-Columbian world.”

So with his first quartet, we hear a composer, now in his 30s, reaching out to create a style that synthesizes the national and the personal – that will, by the time he is in his late-60s, return to find deeper roots to inspire him but to continue evolving an individual voice.

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If you are not familiar with the music of Alberto Ginastera, a Centennial Year is a good opportunity (if not just an excuse) to explore some of the other pieces he's composed. One of the first works of his I'd heard, back when it was still quite new, was a recording of his opera Bomarzo, written for the Washington National Opera but which, if you read most of the reviews about it, seemed to be only about sex (and what college student wouldn't find that an attention-grabber?). I used to listen to it so often, I soon had the music memorized even if the sexual aspects of the production (which, of course, I couldn't see) had little impact on me, so fascinating was the music and its psychological impact on the story. And even though I hadn't heard it in the last 20 years or so, finding it on-line recently, I was amazed how much of it came back to me like an old familiar friend who hadn't aged at all.

Read the synopsis first and if you can find a recording somewhere with the libretto (it is sung in Spanish and the only performance I can find on-line has subtitles in Italian with a very distracting film superimposed on the recording though much of it seems to follow the action), that would be even better. But speaking of “black magic,” that opening is one of the creepiest sounds I've ever heard...!

Also in college, back in the late-60s, I found a recording of his 1st Piano Concerto in the music library. By the time I'd gotten to the last movement, I was sitting there under the headsets, my eyes wide open and my head bobbing to its furious rhythms when someone tapped me on the shoulder to make sure I wasn't having a fit or something. “No,” I said, handing him the headset, “listen to this!”

João-Carlos Martins, piano; Boston Symphony/Erich Leinsdorf – still the most hair-razing performance I've ever heard of it!

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We'll save Henri Dutilleux and his nocturne, Ainsi la nuit, for another post.

Dick Strawser

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