Simon Bolivar Orchestra
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Carlos Chavez was the primal force in 20th-century Mexican music. He served for 20 years as conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra (1928-1948), wrote articles throughout his life for the newspaper "El Universal," was for a time director of the National Conservatory, and founded and directed the Mexican National Institute of Fine Arts. Chavez composed seven symphonies, five ballets, concertos for violin and for piano, and a number of vocal and instrumental works. But, like every other Mexican composer, Chavez faced the problem of how to write an authentic Mexican music, out from under the crushing example of the German tradition. Like so many other composers in this period–Vaughan Williams in England, Bartók and Kodály in Hungarian, and Chavez’s good friend Aaron Copland in America-–he was drawn to the folk music of his own country.
But finding an authentic “native” music in a country as ethnically and historically diverse as Mexico proved a challenge, and Chavez responded in several ways. His interest in native materials was not that of a dilettante, and his contact with that music was direct. Chavez’s maternal grandfather was Indian, his family took their vacations in the Tlaxcala region, and as a young man Chavez came to know and love the folk music of the various regions of Mexico–while serving as director of the National Conservatory, he instituted courses in folk music. Chavez identified three sources for Mexican music. First, the music of the indigenous peoples of Mexico–not the Aztecs, but the nomadic Indian tribes. Second, the music brought to Mexico over a period of centuries by its European invaders. And third, the inevitable fusion of those two quite different kinds of music. Chavez recognized that this heritage was not pure: “Mexican music is largely the product of a mixture of influences, that is, of cross-breeding,” he said.
While Chavez did not make a point of building his music on specifically native materials, one exception is his "Sinfonia India," composed in 1935-36 while on a visit to New York City; Chavez himself conducted the first performance with the Columbia Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra on January 23, 1936. The "Sinfonia India" is concise–it is in one continuous movement that spans only about 12 minutes, and Chavez based it on authentic melodies of Indian tribes from the far western states of Mexico. This is high-energy music. The Vivo gets off to a blistering start with music that skips asymmetrically along alternating 5/8 and 2/4 meters. All this serves as an introduction to the first Indian melody, a quick-paced tune from the Huichole Indians of Nayarit (on the west coast of Mexico near Mazatlán), announced by oboes and violins. Alternating with the opening Vivo, this speeds directly into the second Indian melody, a lovely tune from the Yaqui Indians of Sonora first presented by the E-flat clarinet and then taken up by a number of other instruments. A third theme, also from Sonora, is sung by solo French horn at a slower tempo and quickly extended by the woodwinds. The final theme, in a very fast 6/8 marked Poco Più Vivo, comes from the Isla Tiburón, off the coast of Sonora in the Gulf of California. Chavez does not develop these themes but quickly reprises them before the music rushes to its close without the slightest relaxation of tempo.
A further question facing Mexican composers was the issue of using native Mexican instruments in their music. It might give their music an authentic “flavor,” but it could also seem self-conscious, and Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas cynically referred to this practice as composing “for the tourist trade.” Chavez was willing to take that chance in a work derived directly from native materials, and he provided two different sets of percussion instruments. The “authentic” percussion included such instruments as the Yaqui drum, clay rattle, Yaqui metal rattle, water gourd, tenabari (a string of butterfly coccoons), teponaxtles (a drum with different pitches), grijutian (a string of deer hooves), tlapanhuehuetl (a cylindrical drum), and raspador Yaqui. But–a pragmatist–he specified that these instruments could be replaced by maraca, rattle, tenor drum, xylophone, bass drum, and rasp stick.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
Tres Versiones Sinfonicas
Julián Orbón led what turned out to be an international career. Born in Spain, he was the son of the leading Spanish composer and pianist Benjamín Orbón. The entire family moved to Cuba in 1940, where Benjamín established the Orbón Conservatory in Havana and 15-year-old Julián studied composition with José Ardévol. Ardévol, like so many other composers in the early 20th century, was trying to fuse classical forms with folk material, and his young student soon became a member of Ardévol’s Grupo de Renovación Musical. In 1946, Orbón won a scholarship to Tanglewood, where he studied with Aaron Copland, who would remain a lifelong friend. Orbón returned to Cuba to pursue a career as a pianist, composer, writer, and teacher, but he left that country in 1960, the year after the revolution. Orbón taught for three years at the National Conservatory in Mexico City and then moved to the United States, where he would live for the rest of his life. He taught at a number of schools in New York, including Barnard College and Columbia. A careful craftsman, Orbón was not a prolific composer. His catalog of works includes orchestral music (a symphony and other pieces), chamber music, liturgical music and songs, and chamber and instrumental works.
Orbón composed his "Tres Versiones Sinfónicas" (“Three Symphonic Versions”) in 1953, and the following year it was awarded the Juan de Landaeta Prize at the International Festival of Caracas. Each of the three movements is inspired by a specific type of music or a specific composer, and in that sense "Tres Versiones Sinfónicas" is a sort of symphonic metamorphosis on three different musical styles. Orbón titled the first movement Pavana and said that it was inspired by the music of the 16th-century Spanish composer and poet Luis de Milán. A pavane was originally a dance in duple meter that originated in sixteenth-century Italy, but here that stately old dance takes on an unexpected brilliance. The piece opens with a stirring brass fanfare whose four-note head-theme will figure prominently throughout. Woodwinds quickly introduce the graceful pavane theme, but it is the bright energy of the opening that will drive this movement. A gentler middle section brings a moment of repose before the return of the opening material and the drive to the movement’s quiet but radiant conclusion.
The second movement, Organum-Conductus, has its roots in medieval choral music: organum was a type of choral polyphony in which the melody was harmonized by the addition of extra melodic parts, while conductus was a song that set a sacred Latin text. Orbón spoke of the influence on this movement of the medieval French composer Pérotin. Much of this movement is anchored on sustained pedal notes. The noble principal theme, again introduced by woodwinds, evolves through a series of variations above these sustained tones, finally rising to a climax of unexpected grandeur. The concluding movement, titled Xylophone, features that instrument (actually, several of them) prominently. Shortest of the movements, Xylophone is full of excitement and color, and Orbón based it on Congolese rhythms, particularly as they had entered the Afro-Carribean musical language. Here, and throughout "Tres Versiones Sinfónicas," Orbón’s music rides along a shaft of white-hot energy, made all the more exciting by his skillful handling of a very large symphony orchestra–this music just plain sounds good.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)
An Alpine Symphony
As a boy Richard Strauss was once part of a mountaineering party that got lost and then was drenched by a storm. Those events made such an impression on the boy that he told a friend of his intention to write a piece of music about them. But that piece had to wait a very long time. Strauss grew up and in his twenties and thirties gained fame with tone poems like "Don Juan," "Till Eulenspiegel," and "Also Sprach Zarathustra." In his forties he gained notoriety with his shocking operas "Salome" and "Elektra." Then in 1911, at age 47, he achieved his greatest success with the premiere of "Der Rosenkavalier," an opera that had taken two years of work. Now Strauss needed a new project, and at last he turned to the piece he had thought about writing so many years earlier, the musical depiction of a mountain climb.
But Strauss, usually a very fast worker, was in no hurry to get it done. He began the piece in 1911 and worked at it casually for several years, never quite getting around to finishing it. The outbreak of World War I during the summer of 1914 shut down musical life across Europe, and Strauss-–suddenly with time on his hands-–finished the piece in November 1914; he completed the orchestration during the winter and conducted the premiere in Berlin on October 28, 1915. At that point he was 51 years old, and a project he had first conceived as a boy was finally done.
Strauss called the piece "An Alpine Symphony," but this music is in no formal sense a symphony–it is a tone poem that depicts the events of that climb. Certain fundamental theme-shapes evolve across its 45-minute span, and in that sense "An Alpine Symphony" employs some of the techniques of symphonic music, but otherwise it bears no resemblance to the classical symphony. Its 22 brief sections, each a vivid scene in itself, detail a climb in the Alps and then the descent through a storm to a safe return. The music begins in pre-dawn darkness, the summit is achieved in brilliant sunlight, and the climbers return home long after the sun has gone down, so "An Alpine Symphony" takes us through the events of a complete day.
This is a vast story, and to “tell” it Strauss employs a gigantic orchestra, the largest he ever used. In the score Strauss asks for a minimum of 64 string players, a gigantic percussion section that includes both wind and a thunder machines, 18 brass players, two harps, an organ, and a woodwind section that includes such rare instruments as a heckelphone and a C clarinet. In addition, he writes for an offstage brass ensemble of 12 horns, two trumpets, and two trombones. Strauss can use these forces with great delicacy (at moments only a few instruments are playing), but he can also unleash the full power of this enormous orchestra, and at these moments the "Alpine Symphony" makes a splendid sound, one perfectly suited to the grandeur of the landscape Strauss sets out to depict.
Strauss presents his “symphonic” themes in the first moments of "An Alpine Symphony," and there is some ingenious writing here. Night begins in total darkness with a quietly-falling theme–the “night” theme–that descends into a block of dense sound made up of all 12 notes of the scale. Out of this quiet haze, trombones and tuba intone the ominous “mountain” motif: the peak to be scaled looms high overhead in the darkness. The music gather strength, and suddenly Sunrise bathes the mountain in shining light. The wonder here is that Strauss has used the same theme for Sunrise that he did for Night, but now–speeded up and ringing out in the full orchestra–it sounds like an entirely new theme. Ascent is announced with a vigorous “climbing” theme that rises up through the string sections, and soon a powerful fanfare–punched out by the brass–symbolizes the exultant strength of the climbers as they set out. It is answered by the sound of a passing hunt sweeping through the forest (the offstage brass ensemble gives us the sound of their hunting horns). There will of course be other themes in "An Alpine Symphony," but these four opening themes–night/sunrise, mountain, ascent, and fanfare–will furnish most of the material in "An Alpine Symphony," and they will return (varied symphonically) throughout the journey.
In Entry into the wood the climbers plunge into the shade and a more difficult part of the ascent; around them, birds twitter and winds blow. At the waterfall sparkles as sunlight flashes off the falling water, and we hear a brief hint of the Apparition said to inhabit the mists surrounding such waterfalls. Soon we come out On the flowering meadows, full of blooming flowers (pizzicato strings and harp), and find ourselves On an alpine pasture–here woodwinds yodel in the background, and Strauss employs the cowbells Mahler had used in his Sixth Symphony.
Matters grow more complex in Wrong turns through thicket and brush (is Strauss remembering getting lost on the mountain as a boy?), and the party emerges from this thicket and ventures out On the glacier to spectacular music. Bassoons recall the fanfare theme to introduce Dangerous moments, but these pass, and quickly we are On the summit. This is one of the longest sections in "An Alpine Symphony," and some interesting things happen here. First, trombones signal the triumphant arrival on the summit with a majestic variation of the mountain motif. A long, delicate oboe solo follows, and Strauss’ biographer Normal del Mar has suggested that the rising-and-fall shape of this tune is Strauss’ attempt to depict the rising-and-falling shape of the vista of mountaintops surrounding this summit.. But the mood here is mostly of triumph, and all the main themes gather in a general celebration of reaching the summit; the lengthy Vision recalls many themes heard earlier.
Now it is time to head back, and two brief but spooky sections–-mists rise and the sun is gradually obscured–make clear that problems lie ahead. Matters grow quiet in Elegy, then turn ominous in Calm before the storm, with its flickers of distant thunder. A few drops fall (tiny oboe notes), and suddenly Thunder and storm explodes with all the fury Strauss can wring from his huge orchestra: he recalls all his main themes here and also makes use of the wind and thunder machines. The drenched climbers look up to see the mountain high overhead as Sunset gradually enfolds them in darkness to the strains of the night-motif. An organ announces the beginning of Fading tones, and–at the end of the journey–-Strauss recapitulates his themes in a mood of calm as the mountain slips into darkness. Night brings back the music from the very beginning, and after one final recall of the mountain-theme "An Alpine Symphony" slips into the silent darkness.
(Program note by Eric Bromberger)