Sunday, July 23, 2017

Summermusic: Next Stop, Latin America!

It's true that one of the best souvenirs a traveler can bring home is a broadened perspective. After a night of American piano trios on Friday, the second stop on our three concert tour Sunday afternoon at 4:00 takes us through Latin America with the Brasil Guitar Duo featuring music by composers from Cuba, Argentina, as well as Brazil.

The Brasil Guitar Duo in performance
Their varied program opens with “Zita” by Astor Piazzolla, perhaps the best-known name among Latin American composers today with audiences in the United States, but also Leo Brouwer of Cuba and Egberto Gismonti of Brazil on the first half with an all-Brazilian second half with more Gismonti plus Jacob do Bandolim, Marco Pereira and Paulo Bellinati.

The duo – João Luiz and Douglas Lora – met as teenage guitar students in São Paulo and have been performing together for more than fifteen years. Lora received his Masters at the University of Maimi and Luiz (who has also arranged several pieces for their duo) received his from the Mannes College in NYC, currently pursuing his doctorate at the Manhattan School, and is head of the guitar department at SUNY-Purchase.

They have performed a wide-ranging repertoire from Bach and Scarlatti to a number of world premieres including a Concerto for Two Guitars by one of the composers on tonight's program, the São Paulo-born Paulo Bellinati, and a sonata for two guitars and two cellos by Leo Brouwer they premiered with Yo-Yo Ma and Carlos Prieto in Havana. Their recording of the complete works for two guitars by Brouwer, available on the Naxos label, was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best New Composition.

Here are a few video clips available on YouTube of three of the works on their Harrisburg program: “Zita,” a movement from the Suite Troileana by Piazzolla,

“Bom Partido” by Paulo Bellinati,

and Sete anéis (“Seven Cycles”) by Egberto Gismonti (as arranged by João Luiz):

For a complete performance of the Sonata for Two Guitars by Leo Brouwer, scroll down...

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There is a famous anecdote that almost sounds like it could be apocryphal but certainly speaks volumes of truth for many composers, not just Astor Piazzolla. In 1954, he left Buenos Aires – at the urging of Argentina's leading “classical music” composer of the day, Alberto Ginastera – to study with one of the most influential teachers in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, who taught most of the leading American composers of the day who flocked to The City of Light to study with her, ranging from Aaron Copland, Walter Piston (who was Bernstein's teacher at Harvard) and Elliott Carter to Burt Bacharach and Joe Raposo (more famous for the songs he wrote for Sesame Street). Another of her students, by the way, was Egberto Gismonti, whom I'll get to in a moment.

In the early-1940s, Piazzolla, growing up in the world of the tango in Argentina and a bandoneon player in major dance bands in the capital city, met the pianist Artur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who urged him to study with Ginastera, studying the scores of Stravinsky, Ravel and Bartók, listening to orchestra rehearsals by day and playing the dance clubs by night. By 1950, he gave up his own band, now, to concentrate on composing “serious” music and in 1953 his “Buenos Aires Symphony” won a competition and was given its premiere.

A fight broke out in the audience between people who were enjoying the piece and those who were offended by having two bandoneons in the orchestra! (Remember how offended Paris critics were when Cesar Franck included an English horn in his D Minor Symphony...?) Regardless, Piazzolla won a scholarship as a result of that concert which allowed him to travel to Paris to study with Boulanger.

Nadia Boulanger with her student, Astor Piazzolla
By then 33, Piazzolla played through a number of his “classically-inspired” pieces for his new teacher with little response. It wasn't till he started playing one of his tangos – Triunfal – that she reacted: “This,” she said, “is the real Piazzolla!” Dismissing the pile of “serious” works, she said “this” was what he should focus his efforts on.

(Another version of the story has him feeling despondent after she did not respond favorably to his "classical" works and so, no doubt feeling homesick, went off in some other part of the building and began playing some tangos. Boulanger heard this, listened for a while, and then told him “This is the real Piazzolla!” Either way, it gets to the truth of a composer's identity.)

So he primarily studied counterpoint with her – it was, according to Carter, what she was most brilliant at – and it would, in fact, become a major feature in the development of his “New Tango” style. It was the synthesis of the “serious” which he'd started to learn with Ginastera, with the “popular” element he'd grown up with and which was such an important aspect of his environment.

It is an old argument, this “serious” versus “popular.” If the story sounds vaguely familiar, remember that another young American composer in his late-20s with his feet firmly planted in American popular music went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger as well, only this time she refused to take George Gershwin on as a pupil.

So here we have another great “What If...?” game to play: if Piazzolla had stayed with his “serious” side, would as many people today know the name and hum his music if he instead wrote symphonies and operas and string quartets like his mentor Alberto Ginastera? Would his “serious” music have had the same sincerity his tangos have?

This would also become the major struggle in the creative life of Leonard Bernstein but that's for another time, perhaps.

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This idea of labeling music “serious” or “popular” is another product of the 20th Century. I always hated both terms in the “either/or” pigeon-holing of art when I was growing up in the '60s – does that mean that, say, Dave Brubeck or the Beatles were not serious? Wouldn't that then make “classical” music “unpopular”?

Brahms wrote his “Hungarian Dances” inspired, in part, by hanging out with friends in smoky taverns where gypsy bands played. They were also, he knew, his bread-and-butter: between them and his little Lullaby, he was probably the richest living composer in an age when most composers we can think of were struggling to stay alive. He was a big fan of Johann Strauss who would be considered the closest thing to a “pop icon” of the day but who today is another famous “classical” composer, not that many conductors would consider programming a bunch of Strauss waltzes and polkas on the first half and Brahms' 1st Symphony on the second. And yet Brahms incorporated his “Hungarian” music in the finales of his Violin Concerto or the G Minor Piano Quartet as if it were perfectly natural and while there were always critics who disliked anything Brahms ever did, I don't recall that being a major controversy. He simply absorbed it as another “thing” in his environment which he could make use of in creating his own voice.

Ginastera, in Argentina, wrote music based on “indigenous folk-music” because that's what European composers did – if it wasn't Brahms' ethnic heritage, the idea of incorporating folk songs and dances from his own native Bohemia was the one thing that finally put Dvořák on the musical map, after having imitated first Wagner and then Brahms so long, he despaired of ever finding a style of his own. It was what Dvořák told his American students to do when he taught in New York City in the mid-1890s, how to find their own American voice: take American folk-songs and build your music on them. Curiously, he thought that would be the spiritual songs of African slaves.

While that was easy for a Russian composer like Rimsky-Korsakov or a Hungarian composer like Bartók or even an English composer like Ralph Vaughan Williams, what did that mean to an American? Especially an American who didn't need or a DNA-test to know his grandparents or parents came from England or Italy or Russia or Spain – or from any of the parts of Africa that most other people were almost totally unaware of? How did an Irish-American composer who'd grown up on reels and shanties create a natural-sounding American voice out of the songs of the Native Americans?

And folk music in Latin America was always divided between the indigenous cultures and the colonial cultures. Yet we (as “Americans” – even that is, technically, a loaded term: aren't Canadians and Venezuelans “Americans” also?) tend to overlook the fact that Latin America is as much a melting pot as the United States: from colonization supplanting the “native” or indigenous culture and then the wider spread of European immigration, we forget that Piazzolla, for instance, is originally an Italian name, his grandfather growing up in Southern Italy's Apulia; that Paulo Bellinati is a Brazilian, not an Italian composer despite the ethnicity behind his name; or that Egberto Gismonti's mother was from Sicily and his father from Beirut, Lebanon.

After a time Ginastera – and Villa-Lobos in Brazil – made the transition from folk-inspired music to “abstract” music – “abstract” (the “most serious” of “serious” music, I suppose) in the sense it was not based on a story and not employing folk songs and rhythms simply for the sake of color, “abstract” like the symphonies of Brahms or the string quartets of Beethoven. Going beyond the native, popular influences resulted in more universally translatable works like Ginastera's opera, Bomarzo, set in Renaissance Italy, and Villa-Lobos' numerous suites called Bachianas brasilieras, composed “as if Bach were a composer living in Brazil today.”

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Leo Brouwer is an Afro-Cuban composer whose great-uncle was Ernesto Lecuona who wrote a little something called “Malagueña” and whose cousin Margarita Lecuona wrote “Babalú,” already famous in this country before becoming the signature tune of Desi Arnaz's bandleader character in “I Love Lucy.”

With that family legacy, it would not be surprising young Leo would show musical talent: his father, a doctor, was an amateur guitarist and by 17, Leo was performing and composing.

Leo Brouwer
Brouwer came to the United States to study at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT, and then at Juilliard, studying with Vincent Persichetti and Stefan Wolpe. In 1970, he played in the Berlin world premiere of El Cimarrón by Hans Werner Henze and for a 1979 competition in Hungary he wrote a work for 200 guitars. In addition to the songs and rhythms of his native Cuba, Brouwer was influenced by the aleatoric aesthetic of Iannis Xenakis and the serial music of Luigi Nono. But he was fluent in enough musical “languages” to comfortably transcribe Beatles songs for solo guitar and write music for over one hundred films, including Like Water for Chocolate. In addition to three string quartets and numerous other chamber combinations, he has also composed eleven guitar concertos.

In 1990, he composed a sonata for English guitarist Julian Bream and in 2009, he composed the sonata for two guitars the Brasil Guitar Duo will be performing on their program today, the “Sonata de Los Viajeros” which, at least metaphorically, reflects the journeys of someone who is widely traveled.

It is in four movements and though I could find no translations available (and I do not speak Spanish), their titles might be (1.) Primer Viaje a Tierras Heladas (The first journey to the Land of Ice); (2.) El Retablo de las Maravillas; La Venus de Praxiteles (The Altarpiece of Wonders. The Venus of (the ancient Greek sculptor) Praxiteles); (3.) Visita a Bach en Leipzig (Visit to Bach in Leipzig); (4.) Por el Mar e las Antillas (By the Sea and the Antilles).

This performance of the Sonata with the Brasil Guitar Duo, recorded at Teatro Martí in Havana, begins about 1:20 into the clip.

At the end of the video, the composer, sitting in the front row, stands up to take a bow. This concert also included the world premiere of Brouwer's El arco y la lira for two cellos and two guitars which I highly recommend!

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Egberto Gismonti was born in Rio de Janeiro where he began studying piano at the age of 6 and then, after 15 years of study, went to Paris where he studied with Nadia Boulanger who encouraged him to combine “the collective Brazilian experience” with his own musical style. (Notice, this was a slightly different response than the advice she gave Piazzolla.) He also studied with Jean Barraqué, a serialist who'd studied with Webern and Schoenberg.

Gismonti in Buenos Aires, 2017
Self-taught as a guitarist, Gismonti returned to Brazil and began designing guitars with more than the usual six strings, expanding the possibilities of the instrument. “Approaching the fretboard as if it were a keyboard, Gismonti gives the impression that there is more than a single guitar player.” This recent photograph of him shows him playing his ten-string guitar.

Gismonti's sojourn in the Xingu region of the Amazon basin made a lasting impression. “Brazilian culture,” he says, “is the basic fountain or source that drives my music.”

“Gismonti is one of those musicians that is at one and the same time a shining light in the music of one particular country, and the music of a totally original human being who defies nationalistic categorisation,” guitarist Derek Gripper writes of his experience with the composer's music. “In many respects his music is quintessentially Brazilian, but at the same time it reaches so much further than the music of one nation or history possibly could. ...He just showed me what music could be.”

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Of the three remaining composers on the program, I am running out of time – courtesy of various excuses, an overly helpful cat (which reminds me that Leo Brouwer composed a piano trio entitled El triángulo de las Bermudas) and resulting computer issues we don't need to get into. Besides, it's not my habit necessarily to write extensively about every piece on the program - and some lend themselves to "extensivity" moreso than others...

Together, all these create a varied sampling of the many “dialects” of the Latin American musical language – as varied as one might expect to find when comparing European composers from different countries and eras or even American composers from different backgrounds in our own country.

Earlier, in the previous post, I'd mentioned the old argument about “what constitutes an American composer?” – is it a composer who reflects “the American experience” (whatever that is) or someone who is, basically, born and trained in America?

When I started writing this post, I decided to check for some generic information about “Latin American Music” and found this, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“The music of Latin America refers to music originating from Latin America, namely the Romance-speaking countries and territories of the Americas and the Caribbean south of the United States."

And while that may seem self-evident, rather than building walls perhaps it's really all we need to consider when trying to define something so richly complex as music?

- Dick Strawser

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