Chamber Music Review



¡Viva Latina! - Mallarmé Salutes Venezuela

January 30, 2005 - Durham, NC:


The Mallarmé Chamber Players, the granddaddy of innovative classical music programming in the Triangle has also been in the forefront of audience outreach. But while most groups devise and present special programs for special audiences, Mallarmé’s approach is an interactive interchange, a real sharing and collaboration of traditions. Such has been the case with Mallarmé’s programs in collaboration with the Triangle’s burgeoning Hispanic community. Witness Sunday’s ¡Viva Latina! concert, this time featuring Venezuela.

It is traditional for Mallarmé to share its program with a local ethnic performing group, in this instance The Venezuelan Dance Group, directed by Saida Kriz, an ensemble dedicated to promoting Venezuelan folkloric culture. This system broadens the audience to those people who would normally be primarily interested in the dance group, but who now stay for the ensuing concert of related classical music. And they bring their kids!

The dancing was colorful, entertaining and educational. Miguel Chirinos of the Venezuelan community announced each of the numbers in English and Spanish, relating it to a particular region of the country and giving a bit of its history and background. Our favorite was “La burra” (the female donkey), a solo number in which a dancer in – and on – a colorful papier-mâché donkey prances around the stage bucking and kicking to the syncopated Latin rhythms of a song of the same name. The other dances, “Barlovento” (a northern region of Venezuela on the Caribbean), “Al Manduca,” (A clothes washing song), “”Joropo” (the Venezuelan national dance) and “Balle tropical” (tropical dance) all featured movements with the lovely circular ruffed skirts of the country and the music of a combined Indian, African and Spanish heritage. It was a great set-up for the ensuing chamber music concert, built around South and Central American folklore, rhythms and melodies.

José Vieira Brandão, Enrique González-Medina and Paul Desenne are, like so many Hispanic composers, unfamiliar to American audiences. This concert not only introduced their music, but also presented it in a context that made it truly accessible. First on the program was Duo para oboé e violoncello by José Vieira Brandão, a Brazilian composer who was also pianist and assistant to his prolific countryman composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Performed by oboist Bo Newsome and cellist Nathaniel Leyland, the two-movement work consists of a seresta (serenade) and Desa fio (challenge). This latter movement is a Brazilian version of “I can do anything better than you can” in which the two players try to outdo each other in musical and rhythmic gymnastics. A fun piece, aptly played – with no clear winner.

Mexican composer González-Medina’s Concierto barroco for violin, flute, cello harpsichord and claves (two resonating sticks struck together) uses baroque forms (Tocata, Tango-Gigue and Fandango) combined with Latin rhythms and counterpoint. Often throwbacks like this piece don’t work, seeming neither fish nor fowl, but this piece was delightful, precisely because it didn’t try to sound too eighteenth century.

After the intermission we returned to Venezuela, first with a lecture demonstration on the cuatro, a small four-string guitar, the Venezuelan national instrument. In a somewhat meandering style, visiting artist, cuatro player Carlos Giménez, explained not only the history of the instrument but also demonstrated its use in some of the traditional Venezuelan songs and dances. During the dances, we had already been exposed to the joropo, a Venezuelan version of a waltz with a 6/8 stress creating its essential syncopation. Giménez also explained and demonstrated the merengue, a popular dance throughout the Caribbean in 5/8 time, and the periquera. A bit like the desafio heard earlier in the Duo, the periquera (flock of parrots) is a musical argument made up of ad lib nonsense rhymes, a settling of accounts that can last for hours. Its name derives from the fact that two male parrots placed in the same cage will kill each other – especially if a female is also present.

The lecture/demo was all in preparation for the final piece on the program, Quinteto del Pájaro (The Bird Quintet) for soprano/alto flute, oboe/English horn, violin, cello and cuatro by Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne. Desenne wrote of this work, which he called “an essay in Tropical Baroque music:” “…I tried to achieve a translation of the very volatile spirit of Venezuelan improvisation into the formal and precise terms of a chamber ensemble, bringing the cuatro as a special guest from our region to achieve the effect of a warm continuo section.” Well, he certainly succeeded! Sometimes we speak of music as being “fiendishly difficult,” but this piece really does take the cake. Judging from their facial expressions, Newsome, flutist Anna Wilson, violinist Richard Luby and Leyland were putting every bit of concentration they had into the intricate cross rhythms and tricky entrances. Only Giménez was smiling.

The four movements, “Seis por dercho,” “Guasa del Borrachito,” Alba-Vals” and “Periquera” were all based on the dances and traditions Giménez had explained earlier. But it would take more than an introductory lesson to mine the depths of this piece. The wash of sound and rhythm were simultaneously energizing and hypnotic.

On the way home from the concert, we realized that we had both enjoyed ourselves immensely and had learned a lot about something we had previously known nothing about. What more can you ask? Mallarmé has recently received a “Learning Audiences” grant from the North Carolina Arts Council that will further their ability to create effective outreach. If this concert is any example, their outreach can encompass a full 360 degrees.