07 June 2010

Festival Latinoamericano de Música, further thoughts

On reflection, I will say who the figures were that left a lasting impression. Participating colleagues are unlikely to read these lines, and if they do they will understand, I’m sure, that any omission is the result of specific affinities on this occasion, and not a sign of failure to appreciate their contributions, all of which were valuable.
Graciela Paraskevaídis was impressive for her piece nada, a very potent statement built on next to nothing in the way of material. She kept a low profile in the conference and I missed her own paper, but in conversation between events she showed a lucid mind and a wide-ranging knowledge and understanding of new music. 
Paraskevaídis’s performer for nada, Beatriz Elena Martínez, shone for her committed rendition, full of nuance, physicality and depth of expression. 
The whole Ensamble CG were a lesson in dedication to innovation and high standards of performance; in the words of Paraskevaídis, they are “a luxury for Latin America”.  
The Costa Rican composer Alejandro Cardona was striking in his Historias mínimas, as described in the previous post, and he was a warm and companionable colleague to have around. 
The percussionist Gustavo De Jesús Olivar Sánchez impressed me for his indefatigable energy, his love of new music and his generosity in acting as an unappointed co-ordinator with the visiting composers and performers, walking us on the safer routes and providing a wealth of advice. He showed panache as a soloist in Ricardo Teruel's Concertino on 28 May, and cast-iron reliability in the final concert. 

This concert, by the soloists of the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble from Indiana University directed by Carmen Téllez provided a splendid close, especially the work by David Dzubay and the voice of Sharon Harms. 
Alfredo Rugeles and Diana Arismendi worked selflessly and effectively to put on an event that has the potential to be, and in some respects already is, the main forum for new music in Latin America. 

Rugeles and Arismendi's aspiration to instigate developments not only for the benefit of Venezuela but with a pan-Latin American reach - the project of a Latin American Academy of Composition, for example - should be celebrated and encouraged. They are in line with a vision and a spirit of leadership Venezuelans have excelled at for centuries, from Simón Bolívar onwards. Now that the scope of the activities at Cuba's Casa de las Américas has dwindled - or so it seems to me - these initiatives are precious and unique. They deserve the support of all of us with a stake in Latin American music. 

05 June 2010

XVI Festival Latinoamericano de Música, Day 5

Sunday 30 was the day of my departure, but not before the final event of the festival, a morning concert by the soloists from the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble of Indiana University. I had known their conductor, the excellent Carmen Téllez, from a distance, in her capacity as director of the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University. She came to Caracas with four  young singers and her Indiana colleague David Dzubay, a composer. Dzubay provided what was by far the best piece in the programme, a richly textured setting of ee cummings for mezzosoprano and ensemble titled Life Songs, Book 1: dancesing in a green bay. Jacquelyn Matava gave a committed rendition with a well-directed group of young Venezuelan players, whose clarinettist struck me for her artistry and subtle pianissimos. A disturbing piece by Osvaldo Golijov, Tres canciones para soprano y orquesta de cámara, was superbly sung by Sharon Harms with an ensemble increased to the size of a chamber orchestra: technically accomplished, subtly expressive, rich in contrasts and the carrier of a powerful musical personality, this young singer proved a revelation. I am sure we will hear much about her before long.
The group of Latin American composers assembled in Caracas had by now dwindled to a handful, leaving rather fewer to say goodbye to: besides Paraskevaídis and Villanueva were left Darwin Aquino from Dominican Republic, Jorge Nunes from Brazil and Julio Racine from Haiti. 
My final balance: Alfredo Rugeles and Diana Arismendi do a magnificent job keeping the festival alive in difficult financial circumstances. If this year is anything to go by, they work with vision and dedication, and they have the necessary connections abroad and in Venezuela, but the latter do not always deliver their side of the bargain. All the problems I witnessed were due to somebody higher up or lower down the structure of the country’s culture machinery not honouring their undertaking. Arismendi and Rugeles deserve nothing but praise and gratitude. I wish them well in future festivals, for they deserve to succeed. 
Having read so much press about today’s Venezuela, the opportunity to see it for myself was valuable. 

It was exhilarating to meet so many interesting, talented, articulate and creative individuals among both the locals and the visitors. I have a mental list of those who left the strongest impression, but I will not share it here for fear of hurting anyone who might read these lines - I suppose it is technically possible? - and find themselves unlisted. Ever the optimist, me.
My own participation was not my finest moment. The funereal silence that greeted my paper continues to flummox me; did I misjudge the tone? If so, were there clues for knowing so beforehand, and if so how could I miss them? I will never know. The shrinkage from three pieces of mine in the programme to one, and thence to one movement thereof, was unfortunate, especially because it presented an extremely partial image of my work, and one of an atypical part at that. My own introduction prior to the performance of the slow movement of Una música escondida was meant to help putting the piece in context, but a question later on by a shrewd member of the audience showed me I had muddled the last sentence to the point of unintelligibility. So there were mistakes here and there, but there is little point in apportioning blame; the facts are what they are, and they will be better some other time. 

The main thing is I was there, meeting some of the most talented composers and musicians on the continent, hearing their music, breathing that atmosphere, seeing again that country for which I have respect and affection. I am grateful for the invitation and the splendid opportunity. I learned much. 

XVI Festival Latinoamericano de Música, Day 4

On Saturday 29 May the concert was shared by a very young vocal ensemble, Aequalis Aurea, and the young violinist Iván Pérez and his pianist Goulnara Galimchina. The little choir showed plenty of evidence of having been drilled to distraction by their obviously talented conductor, Ana María Raga, although they still preserve an endearing freshness in their performance.
Gerardo Gerulewicz’s Tarén for violin and piano was charmingly introduced by the composer, listing the titles of the four miniatures. Tarén being a kind of incantation, each movement indicated a specific purpose for the ritual; the second was ‘Tarén for going away when you are a newborn’s father’ and the last was ‘Tarén for scaring mosquitoes away’.  
The violin and piano duo displayed their talents to the full with their encore: Ginastera’s Pampeana No. 1.

XVI Festival Latinoamericano de Música, Day 3

On 28 May I missed most of the first concert due to transport difficulties. On my minibus was travelling the Argentine Cecilia Villanueva, whose En línea was in the programme. We arrived over an hour late, to the pleasant surprise that the organisers had engineered a rolling postponement of En línea, so that, on our arrival, the composer was able to slip into the hall right in time to hear her piece. It was a disciplined study in pitch range-demarcated textures for predominantly low instruments.
The evening concert, by Orquesta Filarmónica de Caracas conducted by German Cáceres, began with Alba Potes’s Cantares para orquesta, a rich fabric of colour and texture. Then came the second movement of Una música escondida. The idea of performing this movement only had been a practical solution emerging from discussions in the wake of the aforementioned personnel and timing difficulties. I was uneasy about being represented by such an atypical, personal utterance, with none of the traits that I consider my trademark, but showing instead a directness of expression which in the context of the whole work was a risk, but on its own had the potential to be perceived as naïve. I therefore asked to introduce the piece so as to put it in context. Whether the introduction helped I am unsure; it certainly did not help my unease.  But this was a festival and there was plenty of interesting music to hear and interesting people to meet, so I thought it pointless to dwell on this discomfort.

Next came Carlos Castro’s Concierto del Sol for guitar and orchestra, performed with authority by the superb guitarist Rubén Riera. Ricardo Teruel’s Concertino No. 2 for concertina, percussion, electric bass and orchestra explored its unusual combination of soloists with exuberance. German Cáceres’s Violin Concerto came across as the evening’s most serious music, showing the telltale signs of pre-compositional pitch organisation and a rhetoric that situates it in the context of such American symphonists as William Schumann.  

XVI Festival Latinoamericano de Música, Day 2

Marcha por la autonomía universitaria vista desde el piso 16 del Hotel Alba, Caracas 27 de mayo de 2010  

The main event of the following day - 27 May - was the concert by Ensamble CG from Colombia. They had given a workshop the previous day, during which their commitment to new music and to working together had been made apparent. This concert put these qualities very much in evidence, displaying a technical handling and a tightness rarely heard in new music ensembles. It would be invidious to single out individual pieces in their very well-chosen programme, but I will do so on special grounds: because she was the festival’s main dynamo, Diana Arismendi, whose Epigramas showed a sensitive use of voice, guitar and percussion and a gift for harmonic clarity. And, because this was a celebrations of her seventieth birthday, Graciela Paraskevaídis’s nada, a piece I found arresting in every respect. The simplicity of the material, written for the stark forces of one solo voice with nearly no text, gathered momentum through the simple device of progressive ascent in pitch, until the intensity was almost unbearable. This exposed structure was superbly paced by the singer Beatriz Elena Martínez, whose control and absolute immersion in the piece were breath-taking. 

This was to be the day of the first rehearsal of my Una música escondida by Orquesta Filarmónica de Caracas. There were timing difficulties and personnel difficulties, as a result of which the rehearsal ended before my piece could be practised. 

XVI Festival Latinoamericano de Música, Day 1

The first day I attended, 26 May, was the third of a composers’ conference adjacent to the festival. I was invited to read a paper - written it in the nick of time, during the journey across - and I read it in the third place, following papers by Diana Arismendi and Miguel Astor. 

Arismendi’s paper provided an outline of the rich developments in composition teaching and practice taking place in Venezuela in the wake of the gigantic growth in orchestral performance brought about by José Antonio Abreu’s youth orchestra movement, known internationally as El Sistema. Miguel Astor discussed knowledgeably possible reforms to the teaching of harmony and counterpoint, and whether they should be taught at all in modern times - his answer being yes, they should. Mine took up the topic “The artist in transit” which had been proposed as a theme by the conference organisers. I surveyed topics of national identity and survival in different cultures, based on my own experiences. This paper was the only one in the whole morning to provoke no comment from the audience, which left me puzzled. Following mine came a paper by Emilio Mendoza, a Venezuelan composer, which stirred controversy by highlighting what Mendoza saw as the relative neglect of composition by the very forces that had unleashed such impressive developments in orchestral playing. Mendoza made the point that the creation of new music was being overlooked at Venezuela’s peril, since in time all the youth players would be forgotten whereas the composers and their works would be remembered. Given that the whole festival was, somehow, a beneficiary of El Sistema’s largesse, and that numerous pieces by Venezuelan composers were, in fact, being performed at the festival, this paper was greeted with some strength of feeling by Venezuelan colleagues. It was instructive to witness the debate, and I admired Mendoza’s courage and compelling manner. The last paper was by Rodolfo Acosta, a Colombian composer, who talked about his experiences teaching composition in an environment characterised by conservatism but blessed with pockets of innovation. 
Alfredo Rugeles, pensativo. Foto AF.
The evening concert was by Cuarteto Venezolano. In the programme was Manena Contreras’s Instantes, which has shared a programme with my own String Quartet No. 1 ‘Montes’ in several concerts of the incomparable Momenta Quartet. This performance in Caracas was not as full of verve as the Momenta’s renditions. In an interesting and varied programme, I was particularly pleased by Arcángel Castillo’s Cuarteto de Cuerdas #1 and by Alejandro Cardona’s Historias Mínimas: Cuarteto No. 5. Castillo’s had a movement handled with challenging simplicity of material and dexterity of touch, based, I believe, on an indigenous dance rhythm. Cardona’s piece was rich in Bartókian echoes, especially in a slow movement reminiscent of the ‘night music’ atmosphere, but on the whole displaying an individual approach to quartet writing, with highly professional control of texture, colour and, most impressively, pacing. 

XVI Festival Latinoamericano de Música

On an invitation from the Festival’s co-directors, Venezuelan composers Alfredo Rugeles and Diana Arismendi, I was able to extricate myself from the frenzy of end-of-year admin at ICMuS  to fly to Caracas for five days. This was not the festival’s entirety but a section of it, for my hosts had been kind enough to invite me to attend the festival in whole or in part. Three pieces of mine were to be performed: Trío, Una música escondida and the song cycle Alquimia. Shortly before my departure for Caracas I discovered that two of these had been dropped, leaving Una música escondida to be played by Orquesta Filarmónica de Caracas under the Salvadorean composer and conductor German Cáceres.  
This was to be my first visit to Venezuela since 1977, when as principal viola with the Bolivian Youth Orchestra I had attended a festival of youth orchestras instigated by the then young El Sistema, the brainchild of José Antonio Abreu. I had then had occasion to admire the wealth of talent and the plethora of rich personalities that country seems to brim over with.
Accommodation was at Hotel Alba. This had formerly been the Caracas Hilton but it had some time ago been taken over by the government, who was, reportedly, determined to keep it as a five-star hotel while making it accessible to ordinary Venezuelans and visitors coming on official business. Were this a different kind of blog I should like to expand on Hotel Alba, but, since it is a music blog, suffice it to say that Hotel Alba looks and feels like its days of glory are over and its days of life are numbered. Thanks, however, to receptionist Angel Domínguez for sorting out my internet connection. 

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