I first heard the Cuarteto Latinoamericano in 1984 making their New York City debut. They were managed by a friend I’d met years before at Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. My friend asked for a report and I was honestly able to say they had great promise, and that all their black shocks of Brylcreemed hair would certainly win over the ladies.
Fast forward 30 years. The haircuts of the three brothers in the quartet, Saul, Aron and Alvaro Bitran, are cut on the shorter side, graying at the temples, and Javier Montiel, the cellist, is balding. Tonsorial artistry aside, it was so rewarding to me to hear how they have matured and mellowed as the years went by. Friends since boyhood in Mexico City, they play with a rapturous honey-toned sound; surely the result of being together, formally, since 1982.
Announcing their first work, lead violinist Saul Bitran, who now lives in the Boston area, remarked that their aim was to familiarize the public with the music of Latin American composers in particular. Though they lag behind European composers in output in terms of quantity, there is a wealth of material still to discover. And so at their Flagler Museum concert Feb. 4, the first three pieces were by Mexican Gustavo Campa and two Brazilians, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Francisco Mignone.
At 17, Campa (1863-1934) studied piano in Mexico City’s Conservatory of Music. Later he served as professor of composition there until 1925. His piece, Trois Miniatures, was given a French title because during the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Mexico’s ruling class were nostalgic for the brief reign of Emperor Maximilian when the French language, culture and music swept through the country.
Trois Miniatures is just that: three very short pieces for string quartet lasting under three minutes each. Thought to be the first Mexican music for this combination, it showed off the rapturous sound of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. First was the Menuet, a lovely melody which makes piquant use of the cello pizzicato in the accompaniment. Second, the delicate Gavotte, lasted just over a minute. The third, Theme et Varié, is a theme and variation on the first two just played. The first violin has a lovely solo that reaches right into the psyche and from then on one hears the clever variations subtly written in the French style, when the Mexican bourgeoisie yearned for the overthrow of dictator Diaz.
Next came Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Quartet No 1. Brazil’s best-known composer, he first had a career playing cello in Rio’s cafe orchestras. Unlike any of his 17 other string quartets, No. 1, composed in 1915, has six movements.
The first, Cantilena, has a single lyrical melody sounding like a serenade. The second, Brincadeira, begins with a lively polka stated in the violins. The harmonies appear in the viola and cello, with pizzicato emphasized in the cello’s lower register. The third, Canto Lirico, gives the viola precedence with a sad melody accompanied by high tight violin playing. The fourth, marked Andante quasi allegretto, is an animated dance like movement. The central section is more lively, then the first part gets repeated an octave higher giving way to a long sustained chord ending.
The fifth, Melancolia, strikes a nostalgic theme introduced by the cello. Lovely diminished scales caught my ear as beautifully original new music, apparently very characteristic of Villa-Lobos. The final movement, Saltando como un saci, (“jumping like an imp’’) feels like an incomplete fugue; the first violin is quickly followed by the second, and then the viola and cello join in. Folksong idioms permeated this wonderful quartet, since in his youth, Villa-Lobos toured Brazil collecting them. He certainly broke free of the European tradition with this unique approach to quartet composition. The playing was immaculate.
Francisco Mignone was a contemporary of Villa-Lobos, and somewhat in his shadow. Studying at the Sao Paulo Conservatory first, he then moved to the Milan Conservatory in Italy. At 32, he returned to teach harmony in Sao Paulo. A son of Italian immigrants, by 13 he was known for his composing. His works could be described as polytonal, atonal and serial. The quartet played his Minuetto, Barcarola and Three Spanish Songs.
The Minuetto is the first thing Mignone composed for string quartet. It is charming, stately and very tuneful. A transcription from his first opera, The Diamond Contractor, it ends with a double pianissimo chord from all four instruments. Next, the Barcarola, or boatman’s song, begins like an Italian melody, but a cello exposition interrupts and Brazilian folk tunes take over.
In 1932 Mignone transcribed three of his songs for quartet: Nana, Por que lloras morenita? and Las mujeres son las moscas. In each, the first violin plays the song accompanied by the other three. I was thoroughly impressed with the tremolo glissando ending of the second song. The attack of the last song by the players created an almost impressionistic atmosphere, as Mignone imagined it might. I thought of bullrings, matadors and the Alhambra.
Debussy’s only String Quartet ended the program. Written in 1893, it was well ahead of its time. Using a cyclical form of composition in which musical ideas are carried from one movement over to the next , he shocked early listeners used to breaks in traditional quartet writing. The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played this one with a sound that I can only describe as that of burnished gold.
In the first movement, Debussy introduces many tempo changes and modal recasting of the germinal theme. Movement number two is a playful scherzo with an ostinato repeated figure, accompanied by virtuosic pizzicatos. The third is somber in mood with a motif from the opening theme, part of the carryover theory he was trying for: cyclical form. The last movement opens passionately with reflective dissonances played on the violins. The cello speeds the proceedings and brilliant trills from the violins occur as they play catchup.
Debussy’s music, no longer shocking, is very much beloved today. What a pity he wrote only one string quartet.
The Germany-based Atos Trio is next in the Flagler Museum’s chamber music series, performing music by Rachmaninov, Suk and Schubert. The concert is set for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18. Call 655-2833 or visit www.flaglermuseum.us.
A ‘very fine’ world premiere at PBSO
The brass and percussion sections of the Palm Beach Symphony were joined at Palm Beach’s Bethesday-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church on Feb. 3 by the church’s music director, organist Harold Pysher, for a wonderful program featuring just these instruments.
Two orchestra trumpeters were augmented by two guest players, Mark Poljak and Brian Garcia. The trombone section added Derek Mitchell; percussion added Pedro Fernandez and the horn section’s four players were as listed. Everyone of them a fine soloist, recognized for their work, but not by name. Perhaps it is time to arm the conductor with a mic so he can personalize each player he singles out.
Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man opened the night. One or two fluffs were obvious in this necessary warmup, and the timpani could have used less energetic hits.
A world premiere was next, by young Nico Muhly, whose opera Two Boys had its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera last year. The new work, A Severe Gesture for Palm Beach, was also a fanfare lasting the best of four minutes. A lot of triple tonguing from the trumpets opens the work with a nice hurried sound. One trumpet plays a separate tune over the other three. French horns make sounds in the Baroque manner, and we go back to the start.
A constant oom-pah-pah from the tuba anchors controlled drum playing, and lovely horn tunes re-enter with bright trumpets over them. A muted single trumpet plays a cheeky melody, then there’s a buildup of three phrases from each group, leading with urgency to the whole brass section playing, loudly. Some more triple tonguing again in the trumpets and soft bells are heard as a lone trumpet blasts out the ending. It was a very fine and unusual composition that shows Muhly’s command of writing for brass instruments.
Pysher played Frank Bridge’s Adagio in E next. Bringing about quieter moments after the fanfares, it begins calmly, but soon the organist pulls out all the stops and swells and the nave is filled with a regal voluntary. Moving on to a hushed sweet melody, reminiscent of music for Evening Vespers, the piece draws to a prayerful close, beautifully played by Pysher.
Music by the German Renaissance master Heinrich Schütz, a setting of Psalm 8 arranged for three brass choirs and organ, followed. As a young student of Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, Schütz learned of the antiphonal music structure whereby choirs or instruments are set around the cathedrals of large churches to take advantage of the ripe acoustic by answering each other back and forth.
So his Psalm 8 is at once thrilling and heart-stopping in its clever antiphonal structure, typical of Venetian composers of the 17th century. Plainsong is often quoted by the brass and the organ picks out the melody in quieter moments. A stirring, grand chordal ending from brass and organ received very warm applause from a nearly full house.
Next came music of the French Renaissance, in pieces by Claude Gervaise. His Allemande conjures up medieval scenes: lords and ladies arriving for a jousting festival. The Galliard reflects people in stately dancing. As the tempo quickens, a softly played tambourine beats the time. A single drum roll goes on continuously as a lovely trumpet melody, first double forte then pianissimo, plays out the movement. The Pavane d’Angletterre is lively stuff: Robin and his merry men arriving to take over.
To introduce the Basse Danse (La Volunté) honey-colored reflective music from trombones and tuba begins; no trumpets, just horns. Then in come the trumpets with a lively jig and it’s back to the honey-colored sound, so seductive, so sublime. In the Pavane Passamaize, the tune is stated by the trumpets and in quick succession repeated by all the others. In the last piece Branle de Bourgogne, quick trills and short runs display the first-rate playing and show off the trumpets in particular. Now it speeds up to a brilliant rallentando, followed by cheers from the audience as each section took a standing ovation.
Harold Pysher then played a toccata by the French Romantic composer Eugène Gigout. Difficult music, given an excellent reading by Pysher as the piece swelled to a magnificent crescendo. His pedal work picked out the distinctive melody, while his hands coped with the upper registers. Ending with a glorious trumpet fanfare it was well received by an attentive audience.
Gigout’s Grand Choeur Dialogué, arranged by Pysher for brass and organ, followed. A clear trumpet statement opens, the brass repeat it twice. Now the melody is extended. Trumpets seem to diffuse the music. Then a processional slow march takes over, similar to that at Easter, when choirs circumnavigate the aisles of the church. A long exposition on the organ leads to trombones and horns picking up the theme. Bigger organ sounds emanate and dominate with lots of tricky scales, until it ends with everyone going all out as they play four long final chords.
After intermission, contemporary American composer James Stephenson’s Fanfare and March livened the mood with its exciting opening. Thoughts of Westminster Abbey crossed my mind; after a brassy start there’s a wonderful reworking of the main theme. Triple-tongued runs from the trumpets ends this stirring martial-style music.
Pysher was next with J.S. Bach’s chorale prelude on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 764). Massive foot pedal work again, so clear and distinct. What I noticed when it ended was that so far there had been no haunting reverberation once the keys had been let go. All night it was the same, yet with full orchestra the sound is often unbalanced in this space.
The four Fanfares Liturgiques of 2oth-century French composer Henri Tomasi came next. The first, Anonciation, is led by the horns. Trombones pick up the tune. Clashing-sounding trumpets take over. A solo horn has a sublime melody, then it ends in major dissonances. Evangile opens with stately trumpets over busy timpani. A lone trombone plays the most beautiful melody; whoever played it was magnificent. Muted trumpets signal an ending to the movement with horns coming on strong. Apocalypse, a scherzo, has clever music reproducing what the world’s end might sound like. Evil spirits dancing around come to mind, and there was urgent music from everyone as they end in a blaze of brass.
Lastly, the Procession du Vendredi-Saint begins with drum rolls accompanied by a steady beat on the kettledrums. Dark sounds come from the tuba and bass trombone. Quick interjections from the trumpets bring new life. A slow buildup followed, and the sounds here reminded of a British brass band competition. This was a great composition, beautifully played.
George Thalben-Ball’s Elegy, the next selection, is another tune I link with Evensong. I heard it played so many times as a cathedral choir boy in my youth, once by the composer himself. Pysher played it with great sensitivity on the organ. One could have heard a pin drop.
Lynn University professor and Empire Brass tubist Kenneth Amis’s Bell-Tones Ring had more of the antiphonal tricks I wrote of in the Schütz piece. It’s very hymn like. There’s great brass work and wonderful organ music, but something seemed to go awry in the middle of it all during a rhythm change. Missed notes signaled tiredness somewhere. A solo trumpet saved the day by playing the hymn-like tune. Martial music wanders a bit, but finds its way to a blowout rending.
Two minutes of Louis Prima’s jazz classic Sing, Sing, Sing ended the program. Conducted by Ramon Tebar, the Prima piece once lasted 20 minutes or more when Benny Goodman allowed the musicians to extemporize back in the 1930s. Spared that insufferable self-indulgence this time, I’m sure audiences would want to hear more programs like this brass-and-organ concert, starting with a Handel organ concerto.