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The Spirit of Brazil

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
11/04/2010 -  
“A Tribute to Villa-Lobos”, presented by the Consulate General of Brazil in New York and the Ministry of External Relations of Brazil
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Prole do bebê No. 1 (The Baby’s Dolls) – Six Cirandinhas (Children’s Rounds) (* +) – Trenzinho do Caipira (The Little Train of the Countryside) (* #)
Ernesto Nazareth: Waltzes, Tangos, Polkas (* #)
Arranged by Abel Rocha (*), Achille Picchi (+) and Marcello Bratke (#)

Marcelo Bratke (Piano), Camerata Brasil: Lucas Anizio de Melo (Violin), Ariel da Silva Alves (Flute), Rodrigo de Oliveira Rodrigues (Clarinet), Leonardo Henrique Miranda de Paula, Wagner de Jesus Nascimento (Percussion)

Camerata Brasil and M. Bratke (© Romula Fieldini DSC))

With the possible exception of his friend Darius Milhaud, Heitor Villa-Lobos was certainly the most prolific composer of the last two centuries. More important, he had a more encompassing view of four continents than any ordinary “serious” composer.

His influences were so eclectic that he could have been five different composers, but he always had his own Brazilian voice. Like Haydn, he started by writing music on the streets to anybody who would buy. Like Bartók and Britten, he traveled extensively through his own country learning, enjoying using its folk music from the East Brazilian Indians to the urban folk singers. He was a multi-instrumental, excelling in cello and guitar.

His European influences were equally manifold, though he needed lessons from nobody. He adored Ravel and Debussy, took to American jazz and thrived on the African influences of his own Brazilian music.

He was equally influenced by the music of Europe, reveling in the most sophisticated music of Paris, but he took lessons from nobody. When Arthur Rubinstein met Villa-Lobos, he was so impressed that he premiered The Baby’s Family, a work both artistically and technically up to pianist’s virtuosity.

Fifty years ago last June he died at the age of 72, and last night a very decent homage was offered him in Zankel Hall. The audience was the elite of New York’s Brazilian and Portuguese Brazilian society, the greetings taking me back to that other overseas territory, Macao. Hearing “Boa noite”, and “Música maravilhosa!”, and “Esta é uma noite linda.” was a breath of fresh air in a rainy Manhattan.

Villa-Lobos would have loved the concert, but not because they offered his music solely. Like all Brazilians, he felt his music could be transcribed in any way that his countrymen and women wanted. The arrangements made here for Camerata Brasil had all the humor, the sounds, the whistles and bells and the delightful solo playing for which Brazil is famed.

But the pianist and arranger of the evening, Marcelo Bratke, started with the work which Arthur Rubinstein premiered, the “Baby’s Dolls in 1922”.

Despite the name, this is no child’s play. If one must criticise it, the piece sounds more and more like Debussy than Villa-Lobos. But it all works. The eight movements are filled with tremendous challenges, and Mr. Bratke obviously used all his Juilliard training to make it come alive. Each “doll” is alive and lively, and every single note must be–as Villa-Lobos obviously was–externalized. Filled with joy, Mr. Bratke was often amazing. The “Punch” doll must have even challenged even Rubinstein. In presto tempo, with flurries of notes, the right hand sizzles on the white keys, the left hand on the black. The Brazilian influence is subtle indeed, but the samba rhythm of the “Clay Doll” and the spirited “Paper Doll” both were played excitedly, and, one must admit ecstatically.

Among his great loves were children’s songs, and the six “rounds” which followed had both simplicity and a circus-like accompaniment by the violin, flute, clarinet and percussion. Nor was the forest far from Brazilian Villa-Lobos mind, ever. So the whistles (birdsong) and bells (faraway churches?) were always a part of the music.

The final Villa-Lobos work, which I must translate as “The Train in a Rural Town” sounded like Honegger’s Pacific 231, though written eight years later. Originally for huge orchestra from the “Bach Brazilian style” music, this had the transparency and more nuanced percussion from Camerata Brasil.

I had thought the second half would be a letdown, with music by Villa-Lobos’ friend and colleague Ernesto Nazareth. But one always discovers new things about Brazilian music. The “polkas” were actually ragtime, the tangos were of course Brazilian. And absolutely nothing was Viennese about his waltzes. They fronted on Portuguese fado sentimentality, but never ever reached down to those maudlin forms.

Yet one still had to return to the original Villa-Lobos music, which had no form except its own. The composer’s problem was that he produced so much music–somebody reckoned about five-thousand-works, some still to be discovered–that it hardly is all good.

Then again, as one aesthete said, “Only mediocre people are always at their best. In one sense, he was Brazilian music, and Darius Milhaud (as we heard from an encore) was happy to plagiarize. But in a more serious sense, the cigar-chomping composer (who resembles Fats Waller) once said–and exemplified his thesis–that “a good composer is able to produce from "himself" music which is more authentic than his own folk music.”

Harry Rolnick



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