Program Notes for Viva Americas
by Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen
Born: December 31, 1899, Santiago Papasquiaro, Durango, Mexico
Died: October 5, 1940, Mexico City, Mexico
Janitzio, by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, has been described as one of several “sophisticated picture-postcard” pieces (tone poems) he composed for the National Symphony of Mexico in the mid-1930s. Revueltas conducted the symphony during these years, and Janitzio was enthusiastically received at its premiere. The reviews, however, hint at a deeper
context for the work: “Besides its sheer aesthetic and aural beauty,” wrote one reviewer, Janitzio “can very well stand as the expression of the most contrasting states that define the Mexican psyche: the romantic and sweet daydreaming, interrupted by the harsh and bitter reality.” Revueltas himself described the work in a way that both underscores its bold, primary-colors approach yet adds a characteristic twist of irony. Janitzio, he explains, is the name of a fishermen’s island in Lake Pátzcuaro, in southern Mexico. He goes on to say that, even though
“romantic travelers have adorned [the lake] with verses in the style of greeting-cards and with music,” it is, in fact, a rather dirty lake, thus undercutting the misplaced idealism of tourists who saw it only as a vacation spot. Revueltas concludes, dryly, that “certainly posterity will reward me for this contribution to the tourist industry.”
Janitzio shows many of Revueltas’s stylistic fingerprints: it is written in a three-part form featuring lively dissonances and vivid orchestration. The two outer sections are marked by brass fanfares that launch the ensemble into a kaleidoscopic survey of propulsive overlapping melodies and rhythms. We often hear one of the composer’s favorite stylistic turns: the presentation of brief melodies by single instruments and then repetitions by instruments playing the melody on clusters of adjacent pitches, creating deliciously crunchy conflicts. The inner section offers intertwining melodies stated first by clarinet and bassoon, projected over a pulsing repeated bass pattern. In the final section, we hear an off-kilter dance to bring the work to a cheerful conclusion.
Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (1965 – 1970, 1999)
Born: March 11, 1921, Mar del Plata, Argentina
Died: July 4, 1992, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Astor Piazzolla found his voice only after being called an idiot by the legendary music teacher Nadia Boulanger. Piazzolla had been awarded a grant to study with her in Paris, and he came armed with what he described as “kilos of symphonies and sonatas” to show her. She was not impressed. Boulanger grilled him on what kind of music he himself played, and reluctantly he played her one of his tangos. “You idiot!” she cried, “that’s Piazzolla!” The rest is history, that is, the history of the New Tango movement, which is inextricably intertwined with Piazzolla himself. New Tango involves adding unconventional musical elements to the traditional style
of dance music. Piazzolla found inspiration in jazz, in the freer dissonance of 20th-century music, and in the use of non-traditional instruments.
Although the changes met with resistance in some quarters, the New Tango style was rapidly accepted internationally. The work on our program, “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” originated as a one-off piece for a play. “Verano Porteño” (Buenos Aires Summer) was written in 1965 (the word ‘porteño’ refers to Buenos Aires). Over the next five years, the composer developed the work into a four-movement setting for a small ensemble. The connection with Antonio Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons” transcends the seasonal markers. Piazzolla structured each movement in three parts, reminiscent of a Baroque concerto, and he included melodic allusions to Vivaldi’s own settings. The Vivaldi connection was further strengthened when violinist Gidon Kremer asked for an arrangement for string orchestra and soloist. This is the ensemble for which Vivaldi’s works were written, and the arranger, Leonid Desyatnikov, sprinkled even more explicit references to Vivaldi into this version (1999). It is in the solo violin part that you’ll hear the “mash-up” most clearly, with flashes of Vivaldi emerging from the sensuous tango rhythms, the lunging slides and glissandi, and the rough-hewn orchestral
sounds. The resulting work offers not only a different view of tango, but also a new way to think about Vivaldi’s equally propulsive rhythms, a reframing that is entirely satisfactory from both
sides. In other words, not just New Tango, but New Vivaldi!
Tres Retratos Mexicanos (2018)
Born: June 14, 1981, Cd. Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico
Composer Osvaldo Mendoza explains that the three movements of the newly commissioned work derive from his life experiences over the last few years. He writes: The first movement, “Lucha Libre” (Wrestling Match), was inspired by my grandpa, who used to watch the Mexican
Lucha Libre every Sunday after mass (ironic, isn’t it!). We would have lunch together while watching a few matches. It has always intrigued me why people liked to participate in this sport, but at that age I guessed that they just did it for fun. This movement starts with a ring bell that gives the starting point for the match. A series of ostinatos or repeated notes leads to climaxes that are brutally interrupted by a smooth and tonal waltz. (In the ostinato section I use an octatonic scale, which is made of alternating whole- and half-steps.) After the waltz is
finished the bell returns, giving the cue for the recap and
coda to finish the movement. “Camino a San Cristobal” (On my way to San Cristobal) is
the second movement. During our honeymoon, my wife and I went to Chiapas, in southern Mexico. We visited several towns there, and one of the most beautiful, picturesque places was San Cristobal de las Casas. The drive to this town was something magical in itself. The road took us up into the mountains, where we could look down at the clouds below us. As we approached the main town we saw all kinds of bright and exotic colors throughout. This experience made a huge impact on me. In this movement, I used very soft and slow music at the beginning. The lontano (far away) trumpet in the background and the strings playing open chords portray that feeling of walking through the clouds. It is followed by the orchestra playing very tonal chords in dance-like music which is joined by a huapango (a dance and music style).
For the third movement, I drew on my visit to Cancun, specifically to Xcaret Park. The indigenous rhythms and dances of Danza Xcaret were an inspiration for me. I used a mixture of rhythms based on patterns of thirteen, six, and two. I also used pentatonic (five-note) and octatonic scales throughout the movement. Sea shells, lots of percussion, extreme registers, and heavy orchestration mark this movement as the climax of the whole piece.
Danzón No. 2 (1994)
Born: December 20, 1950, Álamos, Sonora, Mexico
It is sinuous, slinky, and irresistible—as the composer Arturo Márquez says, the genre of danzón, a kind of salon dance that originated in Cuba, is “music full of sensuality and qualitative seriousness.” Márquez was inspired by trips to dance clubs in Mexico, where the style is enduringly popular, and the resulting work, as he said, “is a tribute to the environment that nourishes the genre. It endeavors to get as close as possible to the dance, to its nostalgic
melodies, to its wild rhythms … It is a very personal way of paying my respects and expressing my emotions towards truly popular music.” But, as the composer emphasized in an interview with NPR, the work (one of eight danzóns he eventually composed), also emerged as a response to the continuing political conflicts that began in the 1990s in the Chiapas state of Mexico. As Márquez said in that interview, “I think it’s a piece for hope, para esperanza.”