A Mexican symphony
Christopher Columbus…1492… This was just a beginning. Through the following centuries, the European sea-faring powers claimed and colonized territories in the Americas. Principal among them was Spain, then at the peak of her power. The Spanish colonial territories were exploited for their natural wealth, alliances were formed, battles fought and civilizations conquered – the history is often a dark and violent one. But with the soldiers, the entrepreneurs and the missionaries came culture too, and the European forms of music, dance, theatre and literature enjoyed a distinctive life in the New World, far from their original sources.
We know little about Antonio Sarrier – he lived and worked in Mexico and he flourished during the middle of the 18th century, at the apogee of Spanish colonization in Latin America. He was a composer and a trumpeter. This much we know. For everything else we need to listen to the music that has survived the centuries.
If you heard Sarrier’s symphony in a blind listening you might guess early Haydn, youthful Mozart, perhaps Johann Christian Bach (the ‘London Bach’). As far as symphonies go it’s a short piece, barely 9 minutes long, and in three movements rather than the four movements of a mature Classical symphony. In fact – as the name of its first movement reveals – it belongs to the tradition of the opera overture, from which the earliest symphonies (or sinfonias) emerged.
In the course of its three movements, a sinfonia would serve several functions. Its first task was to get your attention in a rowdy opera theatre – notice the strong, energetic beginning with its clear-cut musical ideas. Then it would charm the spirit with slower, expressive music perhaps, as in this sinfonia, highlighting the contrasting colors of the strings and the wind instruments. An energetic finale would then stimulate a sense of anticipation for what was to follow. In his own finale Sarrier does something that would probably have been considered a little old-fashioned and academic, even in the colonies: he adopts the form of a fugue, with different instrumental voices imitating each other as they enter the fray in close succession. But it’s not all academic – listen to the brilliant use he makes of high horns!
Liberating the bassoon…
MOZART’S BASSOON CONCERTO
Mozart completed his Bassoon Concerto in 1774, when he was 18 years old. This was one of his earliest concertos, and his first for a woodwind instrument. Although Mozart had received a commission from an amateur bassoonist, Baron Thaddäus von Dürnitz of Munich, modern scholars are doubtful that this concerto was written or the Baron. The solo writing certainly makes no concessions to amateurism. One of its leading modern interpreters, Milan Turkovic, observes that it must have seemed a bold composition, and it exploits all the notes available on the instrument at that time – a five-keyed bassoon requiring complicated fingering. Mozart’s concerto remains satisfying to modern players with more user-friendly instruments, and is still the most often played bassoon concerto.
The bassoon has acquired a reputation for jocularity, and there is indeed something humorous in its wide leaps between registers, and the plaintiveness of tone in its higher reaches. Mozart does not miss the possibilities this offers, but he is also fully awake to the expressiveness of the bassoon, liberated for once from having to reinforce the bass line in the orchestra, and he makes it sing eloquently.
Writing for solo bassoon and orchestra presents some challenges: because the bassoon’s natural register lies in the middle range the orchestral accompaniment must confine itself to the bass and treble parts, leaving the middle as clear as possible. Here Mozart employs only strings, oboes and horns, and he reserves the use of the full orchestra for those moments when the bassoon is silent. You’ll hear, too, how the orchestral horns play very high in their range, keeping them out of the bassoon territory.
The first movement is the most ambitious: the orchestra providing a powerful framework for the bassoon’s leaps and runs. The second movement makes the most of the soloist’s ability to create a singing style – almost operatic. The finale is a dance-like rondo minuet. The bassoon provides the episodes between the main statements of the rondo theme, and only once, towards the end, does it play the theme itself.
In Ariel Ramírez’s Misa Criolla (literally ‘Creole Mass’) the language and the traditional sounds and rhythms come together in an original composition that is at the same time infused with a genuine popular spirit – music of the people. Perhaps it’s no surprise that – since it was recorded and then premiered in the 1960s – it has been an unqualified success, selling millions of copies and filling concert halls, not just in Argentina but worldwide. Misa Criolla is truly popular.
The origins of the music determined its shape and character. After the Second Vatican Council in 1963 vernacular mass settings were permitted for the first time. Roman Catholic congregations worldwide were now free to celebrate the mass in their native languages. And Ramírez’s almost immediate response to this ruling gave rise to one of the very first Catholic Masses to be set in a language other than Latin.
The texts of Misa Criolla are in Castilian, although the five movements and their titles follow the traditional structure of the Latin liturgy: Kyrie (Lord have mercy), Gloria (Glory to the Lord), Credo (I believe), Sanctus (Holy, holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). This is a mass that could be performed as part of a church service, and was approved by the Liturgical Commission of Latin America for this purpose.
But the music works equally well in the ‘secular’ context of a concert performance, because of its folk-inspired, urban popular feel, the vibrant colors of its instruments and the distinctive rhythms Ramírez has employed.
The solemn Kyrie adopts an Andean rhythm, baguala-vidala. The longer Gloria literally taps its toes with the Argentinean carnavalito yaraví dance rhythm. The Credo is almost hypnotic in effect, using the chacarera trunca rhythm from the north of Argentina. The Sanctus draws on the Bolivian variant of the ‘carnaval’ rhythm: cochabambino. The final prayer for peace (Agnus Dei) is in the deeply felt and lyrical ‘style of the pampas’.
To these rhythms Ramírez adds a suite of traditional instruments not normally found in an orchestra! Of particular note is the siku (Bolivian panpipes), the charanga (five-stringed guitar) and the bombo (traditional drum), all three of which you’ll hear in this concert.
Yvonne Frindle © 2014
(Mozart note abridged from a program note by David Garrett © 2003)
Mozart illustration by Charles Krenner © 2014
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart’s childhood was spent touring Europe as a prodigy, entertaining and astonishing the courts of Europe with his amazing musical gifts. He began his career in Salzburg as a servant-musician in the court of the Prince-Archbishop before moving to Vienna. He died, all too young, at the age of 35, but not before he’d demonstrated mature genius.
Ramírez was born in Santa Fé, north of Buenos Aires. As a young man he taught in a mountainous rural area, where he developed an interest in the music of the Indians, gauchos and creoles. In the 1950s he studied folk traditions more formally in Vienna and Madrid. Back in Argentina he collected folk songs and composed many songs of his own. He is best known for his Misa Criolla, composed in 1963.
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner D....