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CD Review

Latin American Ballets

Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Mata
Dorian DOR-90211
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Aaron Copland's overview of Caribbean, Central, and South American music – "The Composers of South America: 1941" – provided the first major link from the U.S. to the concert composers of these regions. He had known Villa-Lôbos and Carlos Chávez since the 20s. Furthermore, the introduction of Latin-American dances into the U.S. popular music of the 30s and 40s (mainly rhumba, samba, and conga) intrigued American composers: from Gershwin's Cuban Overture (originally titled Rumba) through Copland's El Salón México and Danzon Cubano and Gould's Latin-American Symphonette. Copland's essay discusses dozens of composers, largely unknown and unplayed in North America and Europe. Fifty years later, Latin-American music still comes down mainly to a matter of four men – Villa-Lôbos, Chávez, Ginastera, and Revueltas – all dead, and not surprisingly from the dominant countries of Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. While Orbon (Cuba) is just a name to me, I can't tell you even the name of one Costa Rican composer (Copland apparently never visited there), and I'm an interested party. The fragile link Copland opened up has snapped. For the rest of the world, Latin America remains terra musicae incognitae.

The conductor Eduardo Mata for many years successfully advocated the music of these regions and had begun an ambitious project to record Latin-American music with Latin-American orchestras. His death in an airplane crash apparently has put an end to this work. Although beginning with familiar pieces by familiar composers makes commercial sense, the promise of recovering rare treasure through deeper exploration has temporarily gone. A musical omnivore like Bernstein would have been ideal for such a project (in fact, during the 60s, he released a wonderful LP mixing Latin-American knowns and unknowns – my first encounter with Fernandez, Guarnieri, and Revueltas's Sensemaya), but he's gone too.

If you don't know Latin-American music, you can do worse than beginning with this CD, containing at least two 20th-century classics.

As I listened, the composer who kept coming to mind was Stravinsky. The Villa-Lôbos reminded me a bit of Firebird (and not just Uirapurú's plot, also about a magic bird), the Chávez of the austere neo-classical Stravinsky of the 20s (particularly the Piano Sonata and Concerto), and the Ginastera of Stravinskian "barbarism" as filtered through Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin. It's not a simple matter of borrowings or even of influence. All these composers have very well-defined musical personalities of their own, and you would not easily mistake their music for Stravinsky's, any more than you would confuse Stravinsky with Bartók. However, they approach their musical material in similar ways with a similar aesthetic, which probably indicates a "something in the air" common not only to musicians, but to painters and poets as well.

The huge expressive and idiomatic range of Villa-Lôbos's music defies many critics. Blessed with a generous artistic nature, he tends to throw everything he knows into one piece. Consequently, Brazilian folk and popular music exists side-by-side with French Impressionism, Richard Strauss, and an original modernist sensibility in rhythm and line. Even Copland was a bit non-plussed by the apparently unblended nature of the mix. I think of Villa-Lôbos as I think of Ives and Whitman: artists who want to get in everything about their region all at once. Accepting the juxtaposition of disparate elements is simply inextricable from appreciating their work, just as accepting the simultaneous fact of Texans, Californians, and Down Easters is integral to an understanding of the U.S. Uirapurú is imaginative and lush. The music illustrates the scenario almost cinematically, so the ballet "plot" is quite easy to follow (I found it easier than Firebird, in this respect). It lacks only a memorable genius theme, like Firebird's "Infernal Dance" or hymn-like "Finale." The music is so illustrative, I don't know how listeners would react to Uirapurú if they didn't know the plot. To me, the work coheres, at least as well as Ives' Three Places in New England, but like that work, the sense of movement from one idea to the next is idiosyncratic and fundamental to the composer. The orchestra plays at a very high level, with beautiful solos from flute, oboe, and (I think) soprano sax.

Chávez has two main "manners": an epic one, found in works like the Piano Concerto and the Sinfonia di Antigone, both curiously reminiscent of Ernest Bloch; a "constructivist" or Cubist one, found in works like the Soli and the ballet here – along with Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, one of the great ballets of the 20s. Of the two, I prefer Chávez the Cubist, for here, the austerity inherent in his aesthetic often gets leavened with wit and high spirits. In epic mode, he tends to strive for a solemn high significance (something Bloch himself does only at his weakest) and to leave his sense of humor at the door. Horse-Power is lean, but not po'-faced. The musical lines are knife-sharp, the textures beautifully clear, very much like Copland in that regard. Climaxes are muscular rather than opulent. Different musical gestures elbow and crowd each other out, different tempi fade in and out, in a way that owes a lot to Pétrouchka's metrical shifts and co-existences. For me, the most remarkable moment in a score full of them comes in the second movement, where the rhythmic wristwatch seems to explode and there are gears and springs everywhere. The pulse disappears in a kind of mini-vortex as the winds generally seem to go quietly nuts. Yet, it's not mere chaos, just a-rhythmic. The composer obviously exercises a great deal of control here.

Mata matches that control in a superb performance which easily replaces Jorge Mester's somewhat raggedy Louisville recording. The Venezuelans are not merely crisp, but full of energy as well – orchestral playing of a very high order in a difficult score.

Of the three composers here, Ginastera is easily the most cosmopolitan. Despite Estancia's nationalist intent and Argentine rhythms, the ballet could have been written anywhere. There's little difference between this music and Bartók. The inclusion of Argentine musical material doesn't make the music Argentinean, any more than the inclusion of Mexican tunes makes El Salón México something other than a postcard to the States. However, Estancia is indeed a beautiful, exciting score by a powerful composer. The ending alone should get you screaming. The suite lasts roughly thirteen minutes and yet satisfies as much as works twice as long. Ginastera packs each note with either a great tenderness or a great bang. The slow movement calls to mind Bartók's nocturnes of the Hungarian plain, but with a slight tango-y beat. The internationalist turn that Ginastera's music took should surprise no one. However, I find that as the specific Argentinean elements became muted, the music itself somehow became more deeply Argentinean. It's hard for me to articulate exactly what I mean, but give a listen to the Piano Concerto #1, Popol vuh, or the Cantata para America magica.

If nothing else, the variety of all this music should convince you that Latin America is a pretty big place. Still, certain things unite these men. If we can divide music roughly into song and dance, then we might say that dance unites them – not so much by particular rhythms, but in the way they use folk rhythms to generate excitement in the work. Song is what individuates them. For dance is social, and thus expresses what we have in common, while songs we sing mainly for ourselves. Villa-Lôbos sings a bit sentimentally, but endearingly so. Chávez never sings to make an effect, and his song is spare but direct. Ginastera sings under a night sky on the pampas – solitary, but solid and, to some extent, part of the landscape itself.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz