The Spirit of the Andes

Verónica Souto. Photograph by Richard Strike

While on the subject of the Momenta Quartet’s performance of my String Quartet No. 1 ‘Montes’, I recommend a beautiful film: The Spirit of the Andes by Verónica Souto. It is a documentary on the life and work of Fernando Montes, the painter.

The film charts a life’s progress from bohemian La Paz in the 1930s to life as a student in Buenos Aires, world-watching in London cafés in the 1960s and ending with the high-profile international exhibitions in Montes’s mature years. Throughout, the film explores the constant concern with the Andean landscape, which Montes developed into a very personal approach characterised by subtle introspection and simplicity.

It will be shown on Saturday 12 July at 6PM in Culture Lab, Newcastle University.

Momenta in Newcastle!

Photograph by John Gurrin

I am thrilled to announce that the Momenta Quartet, unforgettable heroes of the première of of my String Quartet last year in Philadelphia, will be in Newcastle in the flesh. They will be taking part in the ¡Vamos! Festival with two performances.

On Friday 11 July the Momenta will take part in the festival launch at Northern Stage, playing my Montes and an array of other new Latin American music. The violist Stephanie Griffin and the cellist Joanne Lin will stun their audience with two solo pieces by the Brazilian maverick Arthur Kampela. You can actually see and hear one of them, Bridges for solo viola, on Kampela's myspace page. This programme will also include Oleajes by the Colombian composer Alba Potes, and the world première of a new work by my fellow Bolivian Cergio Prudencio. Cergio is currently the most active composer in Bolivia, and he has secured a place in history by co-founding - with his brother José Luis - and work for three decades as the musical director of the Experimental Orchestra of Native Instruments (OEIN). This evening there will be plenty of other musical goodies on offer, which you can look up on the ¡Vamos! Festival programme.

On Saturday 12 July the Momenta will play at King's Hall, Newcastle University. My String Quartet No 1 'Montes' will get a second airing, preceded by another impressive selection out of the Momenta's contemporary repertoire, including two very new pieces written for them by composers based here in the Northeast of England. These will be chosen out of a workshop I have organised with students from Newcastle and Durham universities: Matthew Rowan, Helen Papaioannou, Tom Albans and Eric Egan. Which of these will be chosen? That will be the surprise of the evening. The programme will also include Instantes by the young Venezuelan composer Manena Contreras and Four Pieces for String Quartet one of the fathers of contemporary Cuban music, Alejandro García Caturla.

Connected with the Momenta visit and with my work, there will be a screening of the beautiful documentary by Verónica Souto The Spirit of the Andes exploring the life and work of the Bolivian painter Fernando Montes. This will be at Newcastle University's Culture Lab. The eminent director will be with us to introduce her film.

Details and tickets are available on the ¡Vamos! website. Or you can book directly with Northern Stage, by clicking here or phoning 0191 230 5151.

'Montes' at Bolivar Hall



Jane Gordon, Adrian Charlesworth, Sara Jones and Jennifer Morsches. In the first image, I am acknowledging the Montes family who are in the audience. Photos by Richard Strike.

UK Première of String Quartet No 1 ‘Montes’

This was an intense experience. The music’s dedicatee, Fernando Montes, presided over the proceedings as if he were still here. His family did most of the organisational work making the event possible, whereas my music and, to a larger extent, Verónica Souto’s film The Spirit of the Andes, brought Montes’s work alive in front of an audience that was made up of Montes’s friends and admirers.

The string quartet experience was very different from the Philadelphia story. First of all, the London-based players were not a pre-existing string quartet, but came together especially for the occasion. This in itself was a considerable organisational challenge which started from the recruitment of the players. At the early stages of planning, if the project was deemed possible at all it had been because a string quartet of young, enthusiastic, new-music loving players, mainly Venezuelans, was deemed to be available to Bolivar Hall. When I made the necessary contact to ascertain the existence, youth and enthusiasm of the players I found that their existence and youth were a distinct possibility, but their enthusiasm was conspicuous by its absence. By this time the project preparations had taken off: the plan was to mark the first anniversary of Montes’s death at Bolivar Hall on 17 January, with a projection of Souto’s film and a performance of my quartet. Many people were working on that assumption. There was no turning back.

At this point enter Jennifer Morsches. She was remembered by the Montes family as a recent, but devoted friend of Fernando’s, and she was remembered by me as the excellent cellist who worked with Florilegium and whom I had seen, much to my surprise, playing romantic and twentieth-century music with Elizabeth Schwimmer in Cochabamba, Bolivia. On being approached about this project she showed unequivocal enthusiasm, and soon she was to prove true to her word. She took on the recruitment of the other players and the planning of the rehearsals, including the offer of her own house for them. When recruitment proved harder than expected her commitment was unwavering. She did not falter even when, two days before the first rehearsal and five days before the concert, her colleague Rodolfo Richter, appointed first violin, announced that he was pulling out because of a severe eye infection that required immediate surgery. Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 were spent in a flurry of phone calls between Jennifer, me and possible Richter replacements. The quartet seemed doomed to cancellation, but the thought of doing that to the Montes family was hard to stomach. Somehow Jennifer's perseverance worked its magic, and by Sunday evening a replacement was in place in the form of Jane Gordon, violinist of the Rautio Trio.

I stayed out of the players’ way the day of the first rehearsal, Monday 14 January, and took the train down to London on the Tuesday. I found the players immersed in their discovery of the piece and of each other, riding on the crest of a very steep learning curve. The piece was new to them, so was the style, and so were they to each other. They were not exactly gliding over, but they were not sinking either. Good spirits saved them, and Jane Gordon saved them by taking the reins and leading with a firm hand. By the end of Tuesday the piece was far from ready, but the spirits far from broken.

On Wednesday, the day before the concert, there was to be no rehearsal because of another concert involving our superb cellist, by the early music group Florilegium. I knew this splendid ensemble since our Bolivian venture in 2005, so I took the opportunity to go and hear them. It was a lunchtime concert, in the bowels of Imperial College. The difficulties of finding this secret location even well after reaching the Imperial campus meant that I got there only for the second piece. I was taken aback by the sight of their virtuoso director, Ashley Solomon, playing Mozart with his foot in an elaborate contraption that appeared designed to keep his toes together. But more than that, I was taken aback by the sight of the violinist, Rodolfo Richter, playing with great aplomb and reading with seemingly unbloodied eyes from a music stand like everybody else, displaying an ocular resilience I had not thought him capable of in his current state. If anybody ever doubted that Mozart’s music can be miraculous, here was the proof. It heals the soul, it heals the eyes. The concert was truly enlightening. And Jennifer was the magnificent player I had always known her to be.

On Thursday 17 January, a year to the day since the death of Fernando Montes, a documentary about him and a string quartet about him received their British premières at London’s Bolivar Hall. Tickets had sold out weeks in advance. The Chairman of the Anglo-Bolivian Society, David Minter, gave a fitting tribute to the artist in his introductory address. Then I introduced the piece outlining each movement’s connection with a Montes painting. Vince Harris helped with the projection of the relevant paintings. Then my four friends played the string quartet, with an assurance that belied the short preparation time and a commitment that did not fail to stir and move. Then Verónica Souto introduced her film, and then the programme closed with the film itself.

It was a memorable occasion in many respects. Clearly Fernando Montes was foremost in the minds and hearts of all present. Several people had travelled a long way, some from abroad, for the occasion. It was an act of group catharsis, where the music and the film provided the ritual’s structure. I found it all deeply moving.

UK première of 'Montes'


Following the Momenta Quartet's concert in Philadelphia, there will be a performance, here in the UK, of my String Quartet No. 1, 'Montes'. Fittingly, it will be part of an evening celebrating the life and the work of the Bolivian painter Fernando Montes to be held at Bolívar Hall, London. This means that the music, born of a reflection of three of Montes's works, after a circuitous journey will come home, to London, where Montes spent most of his professional life and created most of his work.

The players are not a constituted quartet but will get together specially for this concert. They are Jane Gordon and Adrian Charlesworth, violins, Sara Jones, viola, and the dynamo driving this UK première, the impressive cellist Jennifer Morsches.

On this occasion there will also be another important première, that of the documentary The Spirit of The Andes by Verónica Souto.

This is purely for information, since at the time of writing all tickets have sold out, but, for what it's worth, the performance will take place on Thursday 17 January at 1930 in Bolívar Hall, London.

 
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