BY PETER RUTENBERG
The musical gaze of the United States is often firmly fixed on Europe, the source of many concert traditions. When it isn't, our focus rends to be rather nationalistic, to the exclusion of the substantial artistic accomplishments of our Latin American neighbors. With Tangos and Prayers, Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale offer us a sweeping overview of what is most current and fascinating throughout the modern Spanish-speaking world of choral music. The earliest work dates from the mid-17th century, giving us a taste of the grandeur of colonial Mexico, and the latest - a commission from the dynamic Cuban-American composer Tania León - receives its world premiere on this program. In between, a splendid assortment of tangos, folk songs. and sacred works, all of which resound with the vibrant and diverse cultural heritage of Latin America.
Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla was born around 1590 in Milaga, Spain, and received his first training by Francisco Vasquez at the cathedral there. By 1613 he was maestro de capilla in Jerez de Ia Frontera, soon raking the same post at Cadiz, where he stayed until 1620. Two years later, he appears on the payroll at Puebla Cathedral in Mexico as a singer, making chapel master there by 1629. That splendid edifice, finished in 1649, enjoyed the largesse of its longtime patron Bishop Palafox y Mendoza, and possessed choir stalls that could accommodate more musicians than most. Padilla's sense of music on a grand scale, coupled with the bishop's financial backing, was a marriage made in musical heaven. Its legacy is painstakingly preserved in the cathedral's archives, with ornately illuminated manuscripts and leather bindings. These works have now come to light in modern editions published by a team of musicologists at Mapa Mundi.
Taking for its text the better part of Psalm 118, Mirabilia testimollia tua offers a veritable showcase of compositional techniques, as well as an especially clever sequence of 'word paintings' to portray the meaning and emotion of its probing text. It is at once personal in its dialogue between the supplicant and God, and universal in the message of its prayer. Padilla captures both voices with equal power. Like many of the composer's works, this Psalm is set masterfully for double chorus, taking full advantage both of the dramatic qualities inherent in such an antiphonal exchange as well as bold rhythmic patterns that are characteristic of his style.
Subtle rhythmic shifts, harmonic oscillations, and gentle lyricism mark Brazilian composer Emani Aguiar's brief yet render setting of the Ave Maria for five-part chorus. Spanish-born Venezuelan composer, choral conductor, and founder of the Schola Cantorum de Caracas, Alberto Grau is a leading figure on his country's music scene from his post on the faculty of Simon Bolivar University. Kasar mie Ia gaji takes as its cause the international mobilization to save the Earth: the sub-Saharan slogan means "The earth is tired." Grau uses a number of extended vocal techniques to bring the message home, such as the 'fulling pitch' to signify weariness, expressive 'slides' between notes, and hissing the "s" of the word kasar to "imitate the sound of the wind blowing through a desolate landscape." Whispered, spoken or screaming voices enhance the musical medium, as do sounds made with the feet and hands.
Cuban-American composer Tania León graduated from Havana's Peyrellade Conservatory of Music and began her career as a pianist. Relocating to New York in 1967, she studied at NYU and inaugurated a long and productive association as pianist, conductor and composer with Dance Theatre of Harlem. In 1977 she founded the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra's Community Concert Series, becoming the orchestra's associate conductor in 1992, and was also active on Broadway during the 1970s and '80s as music director of The Wiz and with several of Robert Wilson's musical theater productions. Colorful African and Cuban traditions inform her musical style.
About her new work, Ms. León has written: "Rezos was created using excerpts of text from three works in Jamaica Kincaid's collection At the Bottom of the River. The power of her words became for me a kind of personal invocation." Ms. Leon describes the music as “... a sound palette propelled by a series of complex chords that dissolve into simple sounds, sudden interruptions, and/or silence. The harmonic environment of these substantial sounds is my reflection of masses of people, raising their voices in heartfelt, collective prayer [while) the rhythmic environment is, at times, influenced by indigenous overtones of the many cultures of the Americas. The final piece in Rezos contains the text 'Sing again, Sing now,' reassuring and urging us to keep our spirits uplifted." Rezos was commissioned by Terry Knowles and Marshall Rutter in honor of Grant Gershon. The composer dedicates the work, "to the memory of the innocent victims of September 11, 2001, worldwide."
Mata del anima sola by Venezuelan composer Antonio Estévez opens the second half of the program: its atmospheric text by Albert Arvelo Torrealba depicts the solitude of that country's high plains, while the music is cast in the characteristic rhythms of the joropo dance. The chorus portrays typical folk instruments - the four-stringed guitar, diatonic harp and bass guitar- to underscore the tenor soloist. A textured setting of Argentine Oliverio Girondo's poem Mi Iumia by Buenos Aires born composer Javier Zentner follows. Two popular folk songs from Brazil's fabled Northeast- which has a similar history to this country's Old South - merge in C.A. Pinto Fonseca's arrangement of Muié rendêra. Venezuelan folk traditions reappear in two brief but charming songs: the colonial-Spanish serenade Caramba by Otilio Galindez, as arranged by Alberto Grau, and an arrangement of the well-known children's round Arroz con leche by Argentine composer Carlos Guastavino. Javier Zentner also arranged the suite of three tangos and one milonga by his famed countryman, composer and master bandoneonista Astor Piazzolla, under the title The Angel Series. Clever syncopations mark Cuban composer Guido López-Gavilan's concluding rhumba for mixed chorus, El guayaboso.