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Ethnocentrism "From The New World"

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/10/2002 -  
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Uirapuru
Marlos Nobre: Double Concerto
Johannes Brahms: Symphony # 2

Sergio and Odair Assad (guitars)
Orquestra de Sao Paulo
John Neschling (conductor)

Classical music is assailed in the United States by those who find the study of art created by dead white Europeans irrelevant. Even these polemicists, however, implicitly recognize the hegemony of the old continent by their rejection of its culture. But few North Americans who bother to think of these matters ever even consider the rich history of the lands to their south, nations invisible on the artistic radar screen. Take the case of Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. Not only are his highly energetic and innovative works almost never heard in the States, his very name is mispronounced by virtually all professional and amateur musicologists (the family preferred “gee”-nastera, not the now accepted but puzzling “hin”). The irredentism from the North has even permeated the Latin culture itself. On a recent trip to Mexico, I discovered that many classical fans know their Bach and Beethoven, but have little knowledge of their own brilliant Chavez and Revueltas. It is perhaps not surprising to note that La Filharmonica de Queretaro, in the mountains north of Mexico City, has few Hispanic members, most of the instrumentalists originating from behind Europe’s Iron Curtain.

However, with the large and ever increasing Hispanic population north of the border, there is at least an inkling in the American psyche of the existence of another aesthetic in the hemisphere. But the one Portuguese speaking country is almost totally ignored and, although it is gigantic in size, it is as empty of living, breathing art to an American as is Antarctica. This wasn’t always so, as “women’s pictures” of the 1930’s and ‘40’s can attest: flying or sailing down to Rio was almost a rite of passage for Hollywood heroines, and therefore an aspiration for many of their fans, and the other United States was at least occasionally thought about then as a significant presence. Today, I doubt that the average educated northerner can easily name another famous Brazilian besides Pele.

Thus it was with great curiosity that I attended the Sunday afternoon concert of Orquestra de Sao Paulo (see, they even spell funny!), an ensemble that didn’t even exist when Bette Davis made “Now, Voyager”. Considering that it is the largest city in South America and the undisputed cultural capital of Brazil, little is known here of its splendid diversity and vibrant urbanity so reminiscent of New York (Sao Paolo has very large Italian and Japanese communities). In an effort to be a good neighbor, I really wanted to like this group, but they made any significant appreciation very difficult for me because of their extremely hard-edged sound.

It is hard to imagine a work less deserving of this type of fingernails on the blackboard sonority than the extremely beautiful and delicate Brahms 2. With A440 only a distant memory, this orchestra seemed to be striving for the loudest and most angular tone available, the artificial ramping up of pitch a cheap trick designed, one must suppose, to pander to modern ears accustomed to ubiquitous pop. Oddly, the accuracy of the individual instrumental sections was quite solid, however, there was little if any sense of musical poetry in their strident, clipped phrasing. Mr. Neschling, internationally unknown as the composer of scores for such Brazilian classics as Pixote and Kiss of the Spider Woman, seemed more than satisfied to keep time and forces in order, leaving any sense of the acoustically warm or pleasing back home. Performing Brahms as if it were Shostakovich is just plain wrong.

The Brazilian half of the program fared little better. Heitor Villa-Lobos was an endearing windbag who often hit the mark by sheer force of industry (he was probably the most prolific composer of the last century), but could just as easily degenerate into the realm of the travelogue. Such a piece graced our stage this afternoon, interesting for its local color if not for its melodic lines. V-L’s Rite of Spring comes from the other side of the year and so tinges everything with its exoticism, but ultimately falls flat as an integrated work. Here the harshness was less intrusive, but no less irritating.

I actually liked some of Mr. Nobre’s piece for two guitars and chamber orchestra. Unfortunately, the sections that pleased me were those written by Joaquin Rodrigo (imagine, stealing from a blind man!). As if we were not assailed sufficiently by the constant drone of electric guitars in our contemporary life, Neschling opted to amplify the understated eloquence of the Assad brothers, leaving them officially unplugged but heavily miked. Considering the small forces accompanying them, this act of barbarism was especially heinous. Once freed from the cloying featured work, the highly talented duo performed brilliantly a “dueling banjoes” type of encore, for me the only totally satisfying part of the entire program.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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