It was with great interest that I spied that The Americas Society on Park Avenue had scheduled a concert of vocal and chamber works dedicated to the young mavericks composers that headed up the early 20th century modernist movement in Latin American music in the 1920’s and 30’s. The names on the program are composers that I knew from my own forays into songs of the early to mid 20th century composers of Latin America: the Cuban composers Alejandro García-Caturla, Amadeo Roldán and the Mexican composer Carlos Chávez; so it was with great it was expectation that I made my way via an invitation from America’s Society Martha Cargo to attend the concert with the intriguing and inventive title of “Modernismo Rumbero” on March 28, 2016.
The second of a two part series, the “Modernismo Rumbero” concert that took place on Monday March 28, 2016 highlighted the most avant garde of movements of the 20’s and 30’s known as “Afrocubanismo“, which in many ways heralds the Harlem Renaissance movement, and which interestingly enough key members of the respective movements were in close contact with each other, such as American poet Langston Hughes and Cuban poet Alejo Carpentier. Also to be noted are friendships and communications between American composer Henry Cowell with the musical factions of Afrocubanism via an association called the Pan American Association of Composers (1928-1934) also known as PAAC, founded by Edgar Varèse. A fascinating collective of music creators, this group sought to forge with new sounds and new identity a way to separate themselves from a past European musical heritage. Although this concert of two pioneer musical exponents of Afrocubanism includes Mexican composer Carlos Chávez (how could it not!) with his ties to NYC and to the movement Pan American Composers collective, this concert sought to offer a vision of this very exciting time that involved identity, race politics in poetry and music creation in the Americas.
Pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine began the first half of the program with Garcia-Caturla’s “Preludio corto” (1927) with its ragtime scales laced with dodecaphony, followed by Roldán’s “Rítmica No. 1” (1930). The pianist delved into both of these piano miniatures with verve and imagination, exploiting the percussive nature of the pieces; these two short piano pieces were over too soon, and I immediately wished to have the opportunity hear them again; I didn’t know at this point in the concert in the concert that my wish would be granted. The concert continued with the remarkable woodwind quintet ensemble The City of Tomorrow and soprano Sarah Brailey, with a performance of Carlos Chávez settings of text by modernist Mexican poet Carlos Pellicer for high soprano and wind ensemble called “Tres exágonos” (1923) and “Otros tres exágonos” (1924). The intrepid Sarah Brailey entered with spiked short blonde hair and an arm sling; with her free hand she yielded a tuning fork. The group subsequently launched into a highly difficult three movement . I appreciated Brailey’s clear soprano and well pronounced Spanish text, which breathed of the surrealism that was contemporary to this composition. The playing was assertive and energetic. A serious piece and not for the faint of heart, “Tres exágonos” (1924) reminded me of a possible plaintive flapper Ophelia recounting her troubles listlessly on an analyst couch. “Otros tres exágonos” was a well chosen subsequent piece to contrast, full of humor and highlighted the virtuosity of the guest violist Stephanie Griffin. I enjoyed the somewhat theatrical music that Chávez assigned to the bassoon part in these pieces, which was full imaginative interjections for the ensemble as a whole. The Carlos Pellicer texts were certainly eye catching, surreal and dreamlike; I post her a translated excerpt:
The ship has crashed into the moon.
Our luggage was suddenly illuminated.
We all spoke verse
And referred to the most hidden facts.
But the moon sank
In spite of our romantic efforts.
The Chávez chamber vocal ensemble piece was followed by a folk like piano solo miniature by Roldán “Preludio Cubano”, and Afro flavored “Mulato” (1932) as well as Garcia Caturla’s “Comparsa” (1930). To end the first half was the surprisingly long phrased lines of the song for voice and piano “Yambambó” (1933) by Garcia Caturla, a musical setting of the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén famous poem. The song is remarkable on many levels, the first of which that it unites the two most important exponents of the new Afro Cuban modernist aesthetic in both music and poetry. Having sung several versions of this text, the setting of García Caturla’s was surprising to me. Brailey sailed almost too delicately thru the strongly cadenced Afro Cuban “nonsense” text. The contrast and choice was probably drawn from the composition itself, perhaps in García Caturla’s effort to create his new aesthetic to perhaps to astonish a concert going public of the time, the pairing of a classical soprano with Guillén’s text of drunken black man, with music that harmonically in its melody was close to the Afro-Cuban sound, but arching phrases wise closer to an aria from an opera. I couldn’t help of thinking of the contemporary art scene analogous to these pieces, the interest in African art and masks of Picasso for example as well as the sheer energy I felt from these pieces of these young composers, wanting to create a new language and a new expression. How did the public of these pieces react when hearing this music? what did the first interpreters of “Tres exáganos” make of this music, what were their choices? 90 years later the pieces still sound very daring.
At intermission, music director of the Americas Society concert series Sebastian Zubieta talked of the “nonesense”poem tradition in the early 20th century Latin America from which the text Yambambó is born of; he cited Lewis Carroll, but I couldn’t help thinking of a much closer contemporary, Gertrude Stein and her path breaking text for the opera Four Saints in Three Acts by Virgil Thomson. I was also reminded of the US version of these experimental concerts, the well known “Friends and Enemies of New Music”. Like many movements, these modern Latinos are coming out of a very specific zeitgeist. Zubieta spoke how the evenings concert was also an homage to these very same concerts that these composers produced to show case their work, and how in the second half of the concert the pieces were repeated; this was the case with the concert of the evening. All the pieces were repeated in a different order, and I must say it was with different ears that I was able to hear the very same music.
The Americas Society is to be congratulated for the programming of these seldom heard pieces, which in the light of the new diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, it is certainly on point for us to get reacquainted as a concert going public with the musical ties and history between Cuba, the rest of Latin America and the US.
A link to a PDF of “Modernismo Rumbero” concert program can be found via this link: