Monday, July 27, 2009

More about arrangements

I found The Rehearsal Studio blogger Stephen Smoliar's comments about Villa-Lobos (which I referenced in my previous post about Miles Davis' Sketches in Spain) very enlightening. He has another Villa-Lobos post which goes into the arrangement issue in more detail. Writing about the Bachianas Brasileiras in general, and BB#5 in particular, Smoliar says
I like to consider any arrangement as a window into the arranger's own approach to listening, in the same spirit as the Villa-Lobos compositions (which are decidedly not arrangements). Nevertheless, every arrangement can never be more than an experiment; and not all experiments turn out for the best.
The Gil Evans arrangement of O Canto de Nossa Terra, the second movement of Bachianas Brasileiras #2, is definitely an arrangement in this sense. Evans was in a listening groove at the time: the source music for Sketches in Spain (both the Villa-Lobos and the Rodrigo Concierto de l'Aranjuez) was obviously important to Evans during the six months he and Davis worked on the recording. While part of my excitement about Song of Our Country on Sketches in Spain comes from just hearing Miles Davis' trumpet in these tunes, I do feel that there's something special about Evans' take on Villa-Lobos.

There's an interesting twist on the BB#2 arrangement, since the orchestral version we all know is itself an arrangement by Villa-Lobos. Three of the piece's movements, including O Canto de Nossa Terra, were originally written for cello and piano (the fourth was originally for solo piano). Here are Ricardo Santoro and Flávio Augusto playing the original piece:


There are two ways one can proceed from here. One relates to musical craft, while the other is more philosophical. Like Bach himself, Villa-Lobos was a practical musician. Both arranged and re-arranged their own music and others'; both had jobs that required them to write prodigious amounts of original music. Especially as he moved into the 1930s and his new job as head of Music Education in Rio de Janeiro state, Villa immersed himself in the folk music of Brazil. Villa's two streams of source music - Bach and Brazilian folk music - were transformed, in the 1930s and 1940s, into the Bachianas Brasileiras series and the Guia Pratico.

The second way of looking at the Bachianas comes from a source much closer than 18th century Germany: Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote this in Buenos Aires in 1935:

I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.

and

Reading, meanwhile, is an activity subsequent to writing - more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.

We can think, then, of Villa-Lobos reading Bach, and Gil Evans reading Villa-Lobos, and we can see both as being more resigned, more civil, more intellectual than the original compositions.

It was Ned Rorem who compared Villa-Lobos to Borges' Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, who told the "author" of the story,

"Thinking, meditating, imagining,... are not anomalous acts - they are the normal respiration of the intelligence. To glorify the occasional exercise of that function, to treasure beyond price ancient and foreign thoughts, to recall with incredulous awe what some doctor universalis thought, is to confess our own languor, or our own barbarie. Every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he shall be."

Sketches of Spain / Sketches of Brazil

There were two major musical milestones in November, 1959. In Rio de Janeiro, Heitor Villa-Lobos died, on November 17, at his home at Rua Araújo Porto Alegre 56, apartment 54. Meanwhile, in New York, Miles Davis arrived at Columbia Studios to record Gil Evans' arrangement of a suite of music including Rodrigo's Concierto de l'Aranguez, which eventually was released as Sketches of Spain. As this classic LP celebrates its 50th Anniversary in the Ano Villa-Lobos, it's interesting to note the connections between these two events.

[picture of Miles Davis: one of Robert W. Kelley's Life Magazine photos taken in May 1958, from the Google Life Archive © Time Inc.]

First of all, run or cyber-hurry, don't walk, to your nearest music seller to buy the 50th Anniversary Enhanced 2 CD Legacy Edition of Sketches of Spain. It includes various takes of the original five tracks, plus different versions of songs not included on the original LP.

The most important of these is Song of Our Country, Gil Evans' version of O Canto de Nossa Terra, the second movement of Bachianas Brasileiras #2. This is amazing, awesome, as complete a reworking of Villa-Lobos as the Bachianas was a reworking of Bach. In the words of blogger Stephen Smoliar,
Villa-Lobos is far better served by Evans' treatment than he ever was by the overabundance of hack adaptations (anyone remember Johnny Mathis?) of the aria from the fifth Bachianas Brasileiras suite.
The LP was controversial when it was released. I believe it's stood the test of time, and it's a legitimate classic now. It's #356 in the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (a list where Miles does well, though very few other jazz artists show up at all).

In honour of both events, Robert Irving III is launching Sketches of Brazil, an orchestral homage to Miles Davis & Gil Evans, and to Heitor Villa-Lobos. The work will be launched at a free concert on Thursday, August 13, 2009, at 6:30 p.m., in Millennium Park, Chicago. In Irving's words,
As Brazilian music was developed via African and European influences, it possesses a unique blend of subtle sophistication that is seamlessly juxtaposed with moving rhythmic undercurrents. I have sought to develop compositions that likewise, unite these seemingly divergent roots.
I hope that Irving and his Sonic Portraits Orchestra end up in the recording studio with Sketches of Brazil. Based on Irving's previous award-winning work with Miles Davis, this may well end up becoming one of the most important legacies of the Ano Villa-Lobos.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Classical Music Cover Art

I've really enjoyed reading (looking at?) Classique: Cover Art for Classical Music, a book by Dr. Horst Scherg. I remember the golden days of the classical LP cover well: the '60s and '70s at least. Browsing these covers is both an aesthetic exercise and a nostalgic one. It's about the music one remembers and the whole range of design from perfection through kitsch to the bizarre, and in some cases, even perverse. During the height of the LP era, I worked in the Audio-Visual Department of Edmonton Public Library, and I remember checking out probably half of these LPs, though I haven't listened to anywhere close to that many, even in CD transfers.



Scherg features a few Villa-Lobos covers. I wasn't surprised to see the Leopold Stokowski album of Uirapuru and Prokofiev's Cinderella on Everest: it's a classic. Another Everest LP cover in the book is Eugene Goossens' Little Train of the Caipira, with its charming jungle train painting. By the way, the latter LP has been released on CD with the Villa-Lobos pieces from the Stokowski LP included: it's a bargain and a must-have for Villa-Lobos lovers.

There are also a couple of covers of LPs with Villa-Lobos as conductor: the great disc of The Forest of the Amazon with Bidu Sayao, and one of the Bachianas Brasileiras albums with the French National Orchestra. I haven't seen either of these particular covers, even on eBay.

But my all-time favourite classical LP cover is this one of the EMI recording of Albert Roussel's Le festin de l'Araignee. If this ever shows up on eBay, I'm on it!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Heitor Villa-Lobos, Author of the Nisi Dominus

In his entertaining Lies: A Diary, 1986-1999, Ned Rorem writes this entry, dated "Nantucket, 20 November[, 1989]":
In a rented car that brought us here yesterday the radio played a Vivaldi Psalm for alto, in several movements, called Nisi Dominus. But one of the movements isn't Vivaldi's, it's by Villa-Lobos. Sly fox: his famous fifth Bachianas Brasileiras isn't filched from Bach at all, but note for note from Vivaldi. Yes of course it's his too, like Borges's Don Quixote.
I guess Rorem means the fourth movement "Cum dederit", from Psalm 126. Listen for yourself:



Rorem's Borges reference is to the 1939 story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", an early masterpiece of post-modernism.

Brazilian Modernism


This short film helps to place Villa-Lobos in the Modernist movement which he was such an important part of in the 1920s. It's especially nice to see the great paintings of Tarsila do Amaral and Cândido Portinari, who were the Modernist equivalents of Villa-Lobos in the visual arts.

This is from a series on art history by Fulvio Pacheco.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Complete String Quartets from Dorian

A new box set from Dorian includes all of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano Villa-Lobos String Quartets that were recorded in the 1990s on six CDs. It also includes a DVD. There's an excellent new Naxos podcast about the set which includes a nice selection of excerpts and very perceptive comments about Villa's music and his life.

That's one of the cool things about the Villa-Lobos string quartets. Like Beethoven's string quartet series, the 17 works by Villa-Lobos are spread throughout his life, and represent a kind of musical arc.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano's recordings are the best available (though the cycle by the Bessler-Reiss Quartet is excellent as well). The group really know these works, and are well-served by Dorian's recording and production. The Cuarteto Latinoamericano continue to play the Villa-Lobos quartets around the world: they'll be playing the complete cycle at the Sala Ponce in Mexico City on August 22-30, 2009.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Villa-Lobos on the Kindle DX


It looks like people are using the Kindle DX, Amazon's new 9.7" wireless reading device, to read scores at the piano. There are scores of each of the pieces in the Prole do Bebe series for sale in the Kindle Store, at US$2.36 each. These scores are in the public domain in the U.S., though not in other parts of the world.

There's an interesting blog post about using the Kindle to read scores here; it includes some thoughtful comments.

It's unfortunate that the Kindle isn't yet available in Canada. I'll be one of the first to buy one here once Amazon signs up a Canadian wireless provider. Kindle's ability to load PDF format files and its high resolution greyscale screen makes it a natural for score reading, and in 2010 Villa-Lobos scores go into the public domain.

Kindle + imslp.org = an awesome score-reading platform. (I'm spending too much time tweeting!)

Rio's Theatro Municipal @ 100

A while ago I posted about the Centennial of the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro. Here is an album on Facebook, with some pictures of the ongoing restoration project, including this cool picture from the very top:


The actual Centennial date is July 14th.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dancing Bachianas


The Cisne Negro Cia. de Danca will be presenting Forrolins, choreographed by Dany Bittencourt, in three shows at the Theatro Municipal in Sao Paulo this July. The ballet is based on Bachianas Brasileiras #4. This production was premiered in Ballet Nacional do Chile in 2008; the music was adapted by André Mehmari.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Klang der Welt - Brasilien

Here's a new addition to the Naxos Music Library: a disc from a label I hadn't heard of before, New Classical Adventure from Germany. The disc is the Brazilian entry in the Klang der Welt series, with instrumentalists from the Deutschen Oper Berlin and soprano Adriane Queiroz.

The disc includes an excellent version of Villa's Quinteto em forma de Choros, a work which has been well-served on CD. More interestingly, it includes a group of chamber works by composers from Villa-Lobos's generation and the generations that followed him.

Two of Villa's contemporaries on the disc are the fairly obscure Luciano Gallet, and Francisco Mignone, who is actually fairly well represented on CD. From the generation following Villa, there are Camargo Guarnieri and Claudio Santoro, two of the best-known composers in Brazil after Villa-Lobos. Finally, a generation or two later, we have Ronaldo Miranda (born in 1948), and João Guilherme Ripper (born in 1959).

Actually, the generation before Villa-Lobos is also represented on this disc. Ronaldo Miranda's work is Variações sérias sobre um tema de Anacleto de Medeiros, from 1991. It makes use of a very well known, and very lovely, melody by the great Choros musician who was born in 1866, and died in 1907. Anacleto was an important influence on Villa-Lobos, so this piece brings us full circle. While listening to this disc, I learned a lot about the context of Villa-Lobos's music and his legacy. This is an enjoyable programme - highly recommended.

Descobrimento do Brasil at MoMA


Every summer the Museum of Modern Art in New York presents Premiere Brazil, an exhibition of Brazilian film. This year, one of the featured films will be the classic 1937 film by Humberto Mauro O Descobrimento do Brasil, with music by Villa-Lobos. The film will be presented on July 23 at 4:30 p.m.

If you make it to MoMA that day, make sure you stick around for the MoMA Thursday Nights event:

Davi Vieira presents Hip Hop Axé, an Afro-Pop-Brazilian Sound

Robinho Cerqueira, guitar and vocals; Chris Eddleton, drums; Olivier Glissant, keyboard; Zé Grey, bass and vocals; Fabiana Masili, vocals; David Schommer, percussion and vocals; Davi Vieira, percussion and vocals

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Concert in Memory of Maestro Silvio Barbato

A special concert in the Brazilian Senate will be held in memory of Silvio Barbato on July 9th in Brasília. Barbato was one of 228 people killed in the crash of Air France Flight 447 last month. The concert will include Bachianas Brasileiras #5, along with the National Anthem and Gounod's Ave Maria. This sad occasion will also be a chance to celebrate the musical legacy of a great conductor.

I'm planning my own private memorial: it's been a while since I watched the DVD of Villa-Lobos: Uma Vida de Paixao, for which Maestro Barbato served as Musical Director. It's a great blessing that, though we've lost a great musician there is some recorded music, and this great film, to remember him by.

Girl in the Clouds

If I had to choose one Villa-Lobos work to hear it would be this one: A Menina das Nuvens (Girl in the Clouds), the 1958 "Musical Adventure in Three Acts." This piece received high praise from Prof. Tarasti:
"It represents the concentrated late Villa-Lobos, with a harmonically and melodically innocently simple texture extraordinarily well suited to a fairy tale opera meant for children."
This work has never been recorded, and I know of only two performances. One was soon after Villa-Lobos's death, in 1960 in Rio de Janeiro. The other was at the Americas Society in New York in 1989, conducted by Alfred Heller. It's too bad Alfred didn't arrange for a recording of this performance - I wonder if by any chance there might be a bootleg recording out there.

It was great to hear, then (from Prof. Eduardo W. Dias) that a new production is being planned in Belo Horizonte in September 2009. Roberto Duarte will be conducting the Orquestra Sinfônica de Minas Gerais at the Palácio das Artes in Belo Horizonte. I hope that a recording might follow.

Kerkezos Plays Villa-Lobos


Theodore Kerkezos plays the second & third movements of the Villa-Lobos Fantasia for Saxophone & Strings with the Iasi Philharmonic in Moldova. Kerkezos recorded one of the best versions of this work on Naxos in 2002.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Gilberto Mendes on Villa the Modernist

The Brazilian composer Gilberto Mendes is quoted in Neo-Avant-Garde (ed. by David Hopkins), p. 166:
"Villa-Lobos... whose work Mendes likened to that of another typically American composer, Charles Ives, was intent on creating 'sound events', exploring 'the combinatory possibilities of the new sound he was inventing' - where the folkloric element was one among others. And in his best compositions he explored effects, expecially in timbre and instrumentation, that were to become dear to the neue Musik of later decades."
Mendes counted Villa-Lobos among those who,
"...each in his own way, helped to destroy the tonal system and consequently the predominance of melody, giving rise to the music of this second half of the century, made on the basis of noise, electronic sound, microtonal, non-discursive, made up of moments." (p. 177)
There is an interesting generational dynamic between Villa-Lobos and the composers who followed the master, with a natural reaction against Villa's nationalist music of the 1940s in favour of the International Style. It looks like Mendes, who studied with Boulez and Stockhausen, came around in the end, and he adds some lustre to Villa's modernist credentials.

Mendes' best tribute to Villa-Lobos was his piano piece Viva Villa!, which was written in 1987, in celebration of the Villa-Lobos Centennial year. It's included in José Eduardo Martins' disc Music of Tribute v. 1. Those who can read Portuguese should check out the book O antropofagismo na obra pianística de Gilberto Mendes, by Antonio Eduardo Santos. It's available in a Google Books preview; the chapter on Viva Villa! begins on p.108.

The Peacock and the Araponga

David Hurwitz writes about Sibelius's Swanwhite (1908):
"The opening movement, 'The Peacock,' has castanets imaginatively imitating the bird's clacking beak. Even more interesting is the pedal point on the note E that runs through the entire piece in oboes, clarinets, and harp. Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos coincidentally used exactly the same technique in the second movement of his Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 (1936), where the obstinately repeated pitch also represents a stylized birdcall."
from Sibelius Orchestral Works: An Owner's Manual, p. 181. Villa-Lobos's bird is the Araponga, and the repeated note in BB#4 is a beautiful effect in the orchestral adaptation, but especially in the original piano version. The bird-call is is in si bémol: B flat.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

George Rochberg & Villa-Lobos

In his book Five Lines, Four Spaces: The World of My Music, George Rochberg writes about his 1991 work Muse of Fire for flute and guitar:
There is one long, continuous tune in which both join in the traditional pattern of flute carrying the ecstatic melodic release and guitar accompanying with running arpeggiated harmonic figures progressing through tonal motions that verge on a kind of 'south of the border' pop tune. (Inspired perhaps by distant associations with Villa-Lobos's Brasileiras, of which I was once very fond?)
Rochberg wrote this work for guitarist Eliot Fisk and flautist Paulo Robison. Later, Fisk
...had played some solo guitar pieces of Villa-Lobos whose 'impassioned romanticism' gave me the direct impetus to set about writing the Bouquet. (p. 182)
It's interesting that Villa's music had this particular resonance in Rochberg's music. I look forward to hearing these works. The disc Eden: Out of Time includes Muse of Fire played by Fisk and Robison, as well as Fisk's American Bouquet, Tin Pan Alley melodies for solo guitar.

Philippe Bertaud plays Choros #01


Philippe Bertaud's new instructional video "Philippe Bertaud on the Music of Heitor Villa-Lobos" includes this assured performance of Choros #01.

Academy of Santa Cecilia


In his new book George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait, Walter Rimler writes about how George Gershwin,
"...along with Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, had been elected to honorary membership in the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome. George was informed of this in a letter dated February 9, 1937, from composer Alfredo Casella who addressed his as 'Dear Master' and asked for a new piece for September's Venice Fifth International Music Festival."
I don't remember hearing about this honour for Villa-Lobos, or a commission for a new work from the Academy. I'll look into the standard references and check this out.

I've often been struck by the similarities between Villa-Lobos and George Gershwin. Both had a special connection to popular music, and both had formative artistic experiences in Paris in the 1920s. Both created a kind of "national style" for their respective countries. But perhaps most importantly, both loved billiards and big cigars.

Intimate Voices

In November 2009 the University of Rochester Press will publish Intimate Voices: The Twentieth-Century String Quartet, Volume 1: Debussy to Villa-Lobos, edited by Evan Jones, ISBN: 9781580462297. The book is in the Eastman Studies in Music series, and will be available at Amazon on November 15. The chapter on Villa-Lobos is written by Prof. Eero Tarasti. It's good to see Villa-Lobos has finally made the A-list in a mainstream classical music text. He's in good company:
Debussy
Ravel
Sibelius
Bartók
Hindemith
Schoenberg
Berg
Webern
Prokofiev
and in the second volume:
Shostakovich
Britten
Ligeti
Berio
Xenakis
Scelsi
Cage
Babbitt
Carter
Mel Powell
Shulamit Ran
An interesting subtext of my Villa-Lobos career (which began with the creation of the Villa-Lobos Website in 1995) has been the slow but steady rise of Villa's reputation. Since then an explosion of recordings and live performances has raised his profile, and the music is speaking for itself.