Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
Tonight’s celebration of Latin music begins with a quintet by an Italian composer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Born in Florence to a Jewish family at the end of the 19th century, Castelnuovo-Tedesco witnessed the rise of fascism in Italy. His public opposition to the persecution of Jews led to a government ban on playing his works on the radio and the cancellation of performances. Shunned by the musical establishment, Castelnuovo-Tedesco felt particularly grateful for the friendship of Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia, who continued to champion his music and urged him to leave Italy. In 1939, Castelnuovo-Tedesco fled to America and found work in Hollywood. About a decade later, Segovia was approached to play a chamber music concert in Los Angeles. The guitarist agreed on the condition that the chamber music society commission a work from Castelnuovo-Tedesco for the occasion. Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed his Quintet for guitar and string quartet, Op. 143 in less than a month, finishing it in March 1950. In his memoir, he reflects, “It is a work of which I am particularly fond: clear, simple, smooth, almost a Schubert-like lyricism… I count the Quintetto among my best works.”
The Allegro begins with a flourish, then the first violin plays a tragic melody, which the cello echoes phrase by phrase. When the guitar assumes the melody, the second violin provides its echo. The second theme indeed evokes Schubert with its lilting melody and tasteful accompaniment. The opening flourish returns to launch the development, in which the bowed strings layer their melodic lines. The guitar works through a steady stream of rapid figuration until it arrives at the second theme. The development ends dreamily, but a flourish calls everyone back to attention for a recap of the main themes. The Andante mesto features a mournful viola solo; the other bowed strings creep into the texture. When the guitar takes the melody, the harmonies become hopeful, and the presentation is more intricate. The guitar introduces a turning figure that Castelnuovo-Tedesco labelled “Souvenir d’Espagne,” a nod to Segovia’s homeland. Shining harmonics delicately end the movement. Nervous trills announce the Allegro con spirito, alla marcia; the insistent repeated notes in the cello compound the anxiety as the violins strike up a march. The mood lightens when the guitar enters, and the other strings exhibit spectacular techniques, throwing their bows onto the strings for a ricochet effect. The scherzo winks at the audience with cheeky phrase endings and playful whistles. All five instruments come together for a mock-solemn chorale before skipping off to the end. The Allegro con fuoco finale begins with a chugging rondo theme that returns throughout the movement. As the strings pluck out vigorous chords, the guitar takes off in a flamenco flight of fancy, but then settles into a languid habanera. After another instance of the rondo theme, the habanera melody returns in a rushed version, and the guitar sprints toward the finish.
From Spain via an Italian, we move to a Brazilian take on Bach. Throughout his career, Heitor Villa-Lobos moved easily between European classical traditions and popular music of South America. His nine Bachianas Brasileiras suites, composed between 1930 and 1945, present a fusion of these influences, combining Baroque counterpoint and harmonic techniques with Brazilian idioms. Tonight we hear the first movement of the most famous suite, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (composed in 1938), in an arrangement by guest performer Brian Head. Like most movements of the Bachianas Brasileiras suites, it has a dual title reflecting the Old World and the New: Ária (Cantilena). The original suite features a soprano singing with a choir of eight cellos; it begins with the cellos evoking the soft plucking of a guitar through pizzicato, an effect that translates well to an actual guitar. Villa-Lobos begins with a consistent-yet-asymmetric 5/4 meter, but when the wordless singer enters, the meter becomes amorphous, shifting to suit the needs of the haunting melody. The middle of the aria features a more rigid structure as the 5/4 returns and the melodic line becomes a series of falling phrases. This is where the singer switches from vocalise to Portuguese, declaiming a poem by Ruth Valadares Corrêa about the moon “gently appearing beyond the horizon, / embellishing the eventide, like a sweet maid / preparing herself till she’s dreamily gorgeous.” After the conclusion of the poem, the wordless melody resumes.
Like Villa-Lobos, Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla sought to combine classical music with popular styles of his own country—in his case, the tango. His efforts revolutionized and revitalized the style for the twentieth century, earning him great acclaim as the inventor of nuevo tango. Piazzolla showcased his innovations with his own tango ensemble, taking the lead by playing bandoneon, an instrument similar to the concertina or accordion. But toward the end of his career, he leaned more toward classical forms of expression. His six Études tanguistiques from 1987 take the Romantic genre of the concert etude, intended to demonstrate a particular virtuosic skill, and infuse it with tango elements. He originally composed them for solo flute, but tonight we hear Etude No. 3 Molto marcato e energico harmonized and arranged for two violins by Joel Pargman. It begins by marking out the strong, syncopated tango beat and establishing a harmonic pattern. The line becomes embellished with thrilling runs. The tempo relaxes for a sensual middle section, but the driving beat returns.
Piazzolla’s Four for Tango for string quartet delves even further into “classical” styles, but here he embraces art music of the twentieth century, full of dissonance, chromaticism, and extended techniques. Written in 1989, the piece announces its avant-garde approach in the opening measures, with crunching chords and whipping glissandi. The violins and viola set the syncopated beat, punctuated with knocks on the instruments and the clatter of the wooden side of the bow. The cello melody, though frantic, occasionally hints at lyricism. Suddenly, the first violin takes off with a brief cadenza, and the quartet settles into more conventional sounds for a proper tango. But the outré nature of the piece wins out, culminating in a creaking, squeaking, scratching coda.
Tonight’s concert concludes much in the same way it started: with a quintet by an Italian composer, albeit one that was written about a century and a half earlier than Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s. Luigi Boccherini was born in Lucca, Italy, but as a member of a musical family, he began touring Europe at a young age. In 1761, at the age of 18, he settled in Madrid, gaining employment with Spain’s royal family nine years later. He stayed in Spain for the rest of his life, embellishing the fashionable Italian musical styles with local accents. In 1798, nobleman and amateur guitarist Marquis Benavente commissioned Boccherini to arrange some of his earlier works for guitar and strings, resulting in twelve guitar quintets, including the Guitar Quintet in D major, G. 448. The third movement, Grave assai, is a processional, with the first violin interjecting with tumbling arpeggios. It leads directly into the Fandango with a pounding beat and a repetitive harmonic pattern. Boccherini calls upon the cellist to provide special effects, including playing castanets for an unmistakably Spanish finale.