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Heitor Villa-Lobos
31 Oct 2007

The 17th Bienal of Contemporary Brazilian Music

The 17th Bienal of Contemporary Brazilian Music [XVII Bienal de Música Brasileira Contemporânea] began on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007 at the Sala Cecilia Meireles, Rio's leading concert hall, with a lengthy program divided between six orchestral works, entrusted to the National Symphony Orchestra of the Universidade Federal Fluminense, based in Niteroi, RJ and three works for percussion, interpreted by the Dynamo Percussion Quartet.

Opening the festivities was the Fanfarrona (Grand Fanfare) by Tim Rescala, a work which had been commissioned in 2005 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Sala. Surprisingly for a work which one might imagine should have a festive character from the outset, the piece began with no clear character at all, no strong statement, no definitive tone. Gradually the piece took shape, until the concluding section contrasted bits of various familiar marches, etc. for brass, with the more "serious" materials in the string in a Ivesian way. Da Capo (2007) by Marcos Lucas was another work the form of which was difficult to perceive in one hearing - both the gesture of the piece as a whole, and the gestures of the individual moments, seemed undercharacterized, and the final climax took this listener, at least by surprise. The work suffered from weak intonation in the strings. H. Dawid Korenchendler was not heard at the 2005 Bienal, so it was good to hear his strong Sinfonia no. 7 (Sinfonia quasi seria). Korenchendler is revered as a teacher of counterpoint, but his music also reveals a keen sense of humor, evident in the ironic title, and in the gestures of this good-tempered symphony, depicting the visit of a circus to town, a work more easily intelligible both as a whole and in the individual moments. Here once more the intonation of the orchestra was not up to snuff, a fact most painfully apparent in the opening moments for low strings. The Abertura Sinfônica by Rogério Krieger revealed a technically-skilled writer working in a vein that recalled the sound of North America - Copland, perhaps, or a movie score from the 1960s - not innovative, nor Brazilian, but effective. Clearly the most engaging and beautiful work of the evening was Vereda (2003) by Marisa Rezende, a piece with an original voice, one that clearly communicated motion and emotion, and drew on the resources of the orchestra, but through contrast, rather than presenting them all at once. Rezende's writing is a model of clarity, and she achieved a spacious, grand, exalting effect. The concluding orchestral work was The Book of Imaginary Beings, for piano and orchestra, by Eduardo Guimarães Alvares, making effective use of the winds, brass and percussion (particularly the unison slams with the solo piano), and little use of the strings. Interestingly, none of these six works revealed a concern with producing a characteristically Brazilian statement.

The concluding section of the concert, with the orchestra replaced by percussion, was from a different world, and might more effectively have been programmed as a separate concert, with another three such works, since as a single concert the evening would already have been well-filled with six pieces for orchestra. The extremely high quality of performance from this final section also showed up the approximate qualities of the committed but not always convincing renditions from the orchestra. Reflexio (2006), by Marcos di Silva, for speaker, clarinet, cello, and percussion was well-made, but too long for the scant quantity of material used (as Bilbo said "too much better spread over not enough bread"). The concluding pieces well repaid the patience of the listeners who had remained. Dialogues III (2006), by Roseane Yampolschi, was well-made and engaging, with the visible interaction between the percussionists as motives traveled about the stage adding to the listening pleasure. Profusão 5 - Toccata (2007) by Frederick Carrilho closed the evening with a bang, skillfully integrating percussion elements from popular music into a clearly-structured large-scale work. Both here and in the Dialogues the performance of the Dynamo Quartet was world-class, and worthy of a DVD recording. Virtuoso, and extremely enjoyable. Bravo!

After the festive opening of the Bienal on Sunday, Monday’s concert began with a much more intimate tone. First up was Insinuâncias (2006), by Jose Orlando Alves, a work for two percussionists obsessively examining the possibilities of just a few intervals and pitches – tritones and semitones. Alves generates both lyricism and compelling structure from these limited materials. Next was GRLASHODIBZNTMEV (no, I don’t know what it means either) by Andersen Viana for vibraphone and marimba, a quiet, meditative work with indeterminate harmonies. The chamber music which followed, Matérias by Marcelo Chiaretti, for snare drum and piccolo, was the first truly off-putting work of the festival, with pedestrian material from the snares combining with long tones from the piccolo, more a visual than a musical presence, given that the snare drowned out anything in the piccolo’s low to middle range. Memorably bad, but not so bad that it was good. Soprano Doriana Mendes shone in the Diário do trapezista cego by Roberto Victorio, a piece combining a lyrical vocal line with an extremely active and modern idiom for the accompanying guitar. Mendes’ delivered her poetry impeccably, with intonation that was absolutely dead-on. After a not-so-memorable outing for three percussion (Oscuro lume, by Rogério Vasconcelos, highlighting “dark”, i.e., lower and less brilliant instruments), came another particularly rebarbative work, Vol – For Stanley, by Marcos Mesquita, with material of very little interest stretched out to an unforgivable length. Were this a novel, the reader would not persevere beyond the first chapter.

Soprano Mendes was heard in two similarly-scored works, by Fernando Riederer (Campeche no Escuro) and Marcio Steuernagel (À margem oeste deste mar eterno), for soprano, violin, trombone, piano, percussion (Riederer) or soprano, violin, trombone, trumpet, piano, percussion (Steuernagel). The former was much more effective in that the voice’s incantations were contrasted with instrumental interruptions, rather than combined with the ensemble. Mendes’ small but beautifully produced sound was unable to compete with the open-bore trumpet of the Steuernagel, but then few voices could. An ineffective compositional choice. The evening concluded with a lengthy work for piano (Cartas Celestes XIII by Almeida Prado), in which the virtuosity of the performer (Benjamin Cunha Neto) was more impressive than the material, decidedly more earth-bound than its celestial program of stars and galaxies.

Tuesday evening at the Bienal was devoted primarily to electro-acoustic music. The program began with Cancões dos dias vãos XII (Songs of empty days) by L.C. Csekö, who by now is notorious for the quantity of theatrical smoke surrounding his pieces at the various Bienals (I made sure to sit well back from the stage). Csekö’s contribution was a sort of highly-amplified noise-rock for clarinet/bass clarinet, electric guitar, acoustic piano, and percussion, with the performers doing their work in a haze penetrated only by a couple of horizontal beams of light. No details could be perceived, and it seemed that the entire effect would have more convincingly and theatrically carried off by a death-metal band.

The rest of the first half was much more satisfying. Next up was the electroacoustic Mas tenho consciência?....(2004) from Henrique Iwao, a slow-moving stacking of non-equal tempered intervals moving at different rates of speed, producing a rather Bachian effect (mutatis mutandis, of course, in the area of harmony). If Iwao’s work was Baroque in tone, ReCubos v.1.2 (2007) by Marco Campello (also electroacoustic) was almost operatic in tone, with an orchestral breadth, and sounds suggesting brass, woodwinds, and bells against a background which suggested watery depths. Curto Circuito (2007) by Jônatas Manzolli presented three percussionists (wearing miner’s headlamps on a darkened stage) in a sort of neo-primitive idiom, while images suggesting tribal art were projected on a screen behind them. The work received a warm welcome from listeners. Concluding the first half were two exceptionally whimsical works. The first featured percussionist Sergio Freire performing his own music for percussion controller, with a sort of magic wand controlling sounds from a single snare drum, and what I presume were samples activated in real time. Freire’s self-effacing, almost nerdy presence, his motions in controlling the percussion, and the music itself combined for a memorable moment.

Even more out of the ordinary was the percussion quartet by Siri (nom de plume meaning “crab”) which followed, with performers dressed in snorkeling gear seated on stage with plastic containers of water before them, beating on half-immersed pots and pans. Original and amusing.

The second half began with two more electro-acoustic works. First, by Daniel Quaranta, Pelos olhos de quem ve (In the eyes of the beholder), worked with a palette of clanks, thuds and creaks, reminiscent of a transformed piano, moved through a more diffuse moment, and ended abruptly. Tormenta em campos férteis (2006) by Fernando Iazzetta gained momentum slowly, building to percussive rhythms – the counterpoint of different materials heard at the same time from different points in space inside the hall was very effective. Closing the evening was another quasi-political work by Jocy de Oliveira, with a title in Tupi-Guarani (Nherana), which made use of pre-recorded sounds from Brazilian Indians, combined with pseudo-indigenous motives from the live ensemble onstage – oboe, clarinet, cello, electric guitar, and percussion. Seeing the basin of water in front of the oboist, I waited with bated breath until the moment I knew was coming when the instrument would be dunked. Not something you usually do with a wooden instrument of quality. The oboist was also called upon to play two oboes at once. There was the obligatory entrance of the berimbau (no instrument is more evocative of Brazil). And the final gesture…should perhaps remain unrevealed, so as to retain its impact.

Wednesday was a day of torrential rain in Rio de Janeiro, with as much as 15 cm falling, with landslides, tunnels closed, streets flooded, and the government advising car owners to leave them in their garages. By starting time for the fourth program of the 2007 Bienal streets were almost empty, but nevertheless a large number of hardy music-lovers managed to make it downtown. The concert focused once more on electroacoustic works, opening with a programmatic piece referring to the killing of composer Anton Webern by soldier Raymond Bell, after the former had stepped out for a smoke (Raimundo e os sinos (2007), by Marcelo Carneiro de Lima). There were plenty of bell-like tones, but otherwise an ill-informed listener would have no idea of the content. In other words (2005/6), by Bruno Raviaro, for sax and prepared piano, made a strong impression, particularly the cognitive disconnect between the visual of pianist Tatiana Dumas executing a two-armed full smash on the keyboard, and the sound that issued from the instrument. The wild flurry of notes that followed brought piano and saxophone closer than one would have ever imagined. Perhaps the fact that the work was based on a previous improvisation meant that it failed to hold one’s interest for its entire length. Metagestos (2006), by Christine Dignart, was attractive, with a sound world reminiscent of computer music and synthesizers of thirty or forty years ago. One of the most striking works of the festival followed, a piece for soprano and tape by Paulo Guicheney, Anjos são mulheres que escholheram a noite (2006) (Angels are women who have chosen the night), with Doriana Mendes properly celestial, an angelical presence amidst clouds of synthesized sound. The work was dramatic and beautifully paced, with the recorded part supporting, not competing with the soloist.

Estesia (2007), by Rodrigo Avellar de Muniagurria, which closed the first half, combined clarinet harmonics and electroacoustic sounds in a contemplative way, but the shockingly loud noise which concluded the piece (a sort of aural poke in the eye with a sharp stick) revealed another composer who finds it difficult to make a convincing ending in this genre.

The second half began with Lupanar by Marcus Alessi Bittencourt, in which the mechanical sounds made it sound like this particular bordello was all work and no play. The machine noise were punctuated by tenor or baritone register double-reedish beeps and grunts (the male customers?), but the piece went on much, much, much too long.

The Kyrie & Gloria (2004) by Rodrigo Cicchelli Velloso which followed was another of the highlights of the festival, with excellent singing from the chorus Sacra Vox, under the direction of Valeria Mattos. The choral sounds were electronically transformed and echoed, and the combination of choral writing (very effective) and effects was evocative and beautiful.

Closing the concert was an evocation of the sea (Maresia, by Daniel Barreiro), nicely done, almost cinematic in breadth, and a piece neither too brief nor too long, but with an organic shape. The concluding work for heavily-amplified violin and tape (Percussion Study V) was more a piece of theater (carried off with bravura by violinist Mario da Silva) than a work with an intrinsically musical shape.

Thursday’s program returned to more traditional media, with the performing responsibilities divided between the Quarteto Experimental (a clarinet quartet made up of Batista Jr., Walter Jr., Marcelo Ferreira and Ricardo Ferreira), and the strings of the Symphonic Orchestra of UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), under the baton of André Cardoso. The first three works were given to the Quarteto, a group of exceptional musicians playing at the highest level. Prenúncio (de um tormento) (Foreshadowing of a suffering) (2007) by Gustavo Campos Guerreiro began slowly (a mournful glimpse of what is to come), preparing for an outburst of quick patterns in the upper voices while the lower voice continues in its slow motion. A fine work. The extensive Clarinet Quartet (2007) by Thiago Sias revealed an impressively assured and original voice in its writing (particularly for a twenty-five year old at the beginning of his career), exploiting the possibilities of the instruments, with a predominantly lyrical sound. The Criatura no. 1 (2004) by Yahn Wagner (in which the quartet was joined by Waleska Beltrami on French horn) also made a strong impression, particularly the motoric rhythms combining like clockwork, which, along with humorous tone, seemed to this listener to draw on Stravinsky .

The strings of UFRJ then closed the first half with two strongly contrasting works. The first were the Three Miniatures (2006) by Murillo Santos, slight in dimensions, attractive, good-natured, well-made, conservative in idiom. The In extremis, ad extremum (2006) by Roberto Macedo Ribeiro, a passacaglia with moments of beauty, and an obsessive intensity in the masterful stretto and ultimate deconstruction of the material was an anguished crying-out which will remain in the memory.

After intermission came the Tres toques emotivos (2007) by Guilherme Bauer, with a difficult chromatic and contrapuntal idiom which took the strings a bit beyond their technical limits. Canauê, op. 22 (2006) by Dimitri Cervo was considerably more approachable in idiom, beginning with a lyrical theme over string tremolos, and closing with a quicker section combining “Brazilian” rhythms with a minimalist style.

The history and culture of Northeast Brazil then made an appearance with a programmatic piece reflecting the popular literature about outlaws – Cordel no. 1: A saga de Corisco [the story of a famous bandit] by Liduino Pitombeira, the musical idiom balancing between accessibility and modernity, between abstraction and imagery. The program closed with another work, this time explicitly narrative, based on a poem by Euclides da Cunha, in which the strings were joined by baritone Eladio Pérez-González and flutist Eduardo Monteiro, a sort of melodrama in which the vocal part was very much more parlato than sung.

Friday at the Bienal was rather a mixed bag. The evening started with Levante by Rodolfo Vaz Valente, a lengthy piece for clarinet solo, beginning in the lowest register of the instrument and making its way upwards, in a clipped and disjunct idiom, anti-lyrical, one might say, and hardly something one would dance to. Were it a piece of verbiage, you might think of a lengthy disquisition on a rather dry subject. The piece was virtuoso, taking advantage of the prodigious technique of Paulo Sergio Santos, but not at all in-drawing. Next came a song cycle, Vida fu(n)dida, by Calimerio Soares, in which the painstakingly-enunciated utterances of the soloist, Eládio Pérez-González, were at odds with a flightier piano part, and two songs, Homenagens (2007), by Nestor de Hollanda Cavalcanti, celebrating friends of the composer who had passed on, but in a intimate vein making no sense to outsiders, like family pictures from someone else’s family. These were followed by two exceedingly dry pieces (by Rogerio Constante, and by Paulo de Tarso Salles) for guitar, which must have been well-played by the gifted Paulo Pedrassoli, but neither of which held any appeal for these ears, seemingly making a point of avoiding any of the normal seductions of the instrument. The first half closed with two pedestrian choral works, adequately sung by the Brasil Ensemble – UFRJ, but lacking any iota of innovation in style. All in all, eight pieces, with not one generating excitement.

The second half made the trip to the Sala worthwhile. It celebrated the 100th anniversaries of the births of Jose Siqueira (1907-1985) and Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993), with the Quarteto Radamés Gnattali (Carla Rincón, João Carlos Ferreira, violins, Fernando Thebaldi, viola, Paulo Santoro, cello) performing the Quartet no. 2 of the former, and Quartet no. 3 of the latter. The Siqueira drew heavily on Northeastern folk music, particularly in the stunningly beautiful and lyrical Andante. The Guarnieri was more modern (violently urban) in its outer movements, but also drew on Northeastern idioms in the central heart of the work, the Lento. The playing of the Quarteto in these works brought tears to the eyes. Not to be missed.

My final evening at the 2007 Bienal was Saturday, lamentably, although three more concerts beckoned, but professional responsibilities meant that I needed to fly back to the USA on Sunday. In previous Bienals, the festivities had started on Friday evenings, meaning that fans from outside Rio could fly in, spend two weekends sandwiched around a week of concerts, and get back to work by Monday morning. No such luck this year, and something I consider poor planning by the organizers (of which, more later).

The program began with a work for two pianos (performed with verve by Sara Cohen and Zélia Chueke) – Agua-Forte (2006), by Ricardo Tacuchian, a piece in a surprisingly conservative idiom, with figuration and rhythm quite regular in a free opening section which led to a fugato on what sounded like an “Indian” theme. There were details which recalled, of all people, Gershwin.

Three choral works followed, in performances by the Coral Harte Vocal. Both the modest dimensions and ambitions of the works themselves, and the renditions by the chorus, reinforced my impression that choral music in Brazil is an area susceptible to considerable growth, and one in which achievements are yet below what is the norm for other genres in Brazil, and below the norm for top choruses elsewhere in the world. The chorus, made up of young, seemingly untrained voices, produced a small sound that barely carried to where I was sitting.

The first half ended with a substantial and quite attractive piece for a traditional ensemble, the Quartet 2006 for piano quartet by Ernest Mahle, capably performed by Sara Cohen, Ricardo Amado, José Volker, and Marcelo Salles. The work is predominantly retrospective and lyrical in tone, with a striking middle movement, Andantino cromatico, played sempre pp.

Rather than end this panorama of Brazilian music on a sour note, I will let the first be last, and the last first. The Toccata Metal (2007) for solo cello by Yanto Laitano received a virtuoso performance by Paulo Santoro, but to these ears it was naught but sound and fury signifying nothing. I can’t imagine wanting to hear it again. Does the “metal” from the title refer to “heavy metal”? Hard to say. Ambitious but unsatisfying was Pathos (2006) for a quartet of clarinet, viola, cello and piano by Bruno Angelo, with many unisons perhaps intended to be dramatic, but which chiefly showed that the young players were incapable of playing in tune, particularly the lamentable cello, excruciatingly out in its high register. Ouch!

Far more rewarding were the two works which opened the second half, Celebração (2006) by Maria Helena Rosas Fenandes, quite original in voice and dark in tone, with a religious program, but one which was not usually audible in the music, except for the evocation of animal voices in the opening Cântico das criaturas. Particularly striking was the Paisagem do inverno (Winter Landscape) (2006), by Harry Crowl, beautifully played by Batista Jr., clarinet, Vinicius Amaral, violin, and Luciano Magalhães, piano, evoking first winter storms, and then an a chilly, but more tranquil, calm, with a harmonically static section leading to a long, long, long final adagio, masterfully captured by the trio. Captivating!

Some closing thoughts: each Bienal reveals the richness of contemporary music composition in Brazil, but also brings home to me how little this beautiful music is known internationally. The Bienal should be an opportunity for the country to show the best of what it produces to the world, not simply an opportunity for composers and performers to meet. For the Bienal to fulfill a broader function, it needs to have a firmer organizational and funding base, a base that would allow the festival to be scheduled years, rather than months, in advance, and should make a concerted effort to attract music-lovers from around the world to visit, including the international press. It is shocking how the Brazilian press itself can ignore this important event, with no prior coverage, and almost no reportage of the concerts of the festival. Music is in Brazil is vital – the composers and performers for this festival were almost all in their forties, thirties, twenties – and it communicates, but it needs help from the media to get its message across.

Tom Moore

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