Destinations: Latin America

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on October 7, 2018 at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “Latin America” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All program notes for this performance were written by Lee Dise.

National borders cannot restrict music.

Chabrier and Debussy were Frenchmen who wrote Spanish music. So did Rimsky-Korsakov, a Russian. His contemporary, Tchaikovsky, composed an Italian capriccio. German composer Richard Wagner wrote something called the “American Centennial Overture,” and Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote jazz. Despite nationalistic styles and tendencies, there’s usually a lot of cross-pollination going on. Composers listen. They remember what they like, and what they like comes out in their own music.

Our program, “Destination: Latin America,” highlights the music of two Latin American composers and three other works by musical sojourners who were impressed with the Latin style.

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin was certainly not a Latin American. He was born in Brooklyn, a Jew of Russian and Latvian descent. Starting out in Tin Pan Alley—America’s erstwhile pop music capital—Gershwin broke into the big time with his own song, “Swanee,” made famous by renowned entertainer Al Jolson.
Perhaps Gershwin’s greatest stylistic innovation was his success at blending European classical music with a new style, jazz, which had become a worldwide sensation. Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” today isn’t as well-known as either “An American in Paris” or “Rhapsody in Blue,” but in its day it was quite popular. The Gershwin lyricism is present, as are his trademark jazzy licks, all infused with energetic Latin rhythms. Though jazz’s roots are firmly entrenched in American Black culture, those Latin rhythms sprouted some limbs on that very same tree. Gershwin played a role here.

Michael Daugherty

Though other musicians at times may feel the urge to bang on their instruments, only percussionists are actually encouraged to go through with it. The next selection is a very unconventional concerto of sorts for tympani and orchestra. Michael Daugherty’s “Raise the Roof” was premiered in 2003 by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Neemi Järvi.
A repeated, mambo-like motif that seems lifted from pop music is its primary structural component. However, Daugherty doesn’t just depend on the strings or winds to proclaim the motif; the tympani get an equal say in the proceedings—particularly near the middle of the composition, where they have the stage more or less to themselves in an extended cadenza. The treatment is part fugato, part jazzy and part primitive, with maybe a bit of film noir movie-music style thrown in. Daugherty also adds a few astringent chords into the mix, here and there, perhaps as a nod toward atonality.
Daugherty is a professor of music at the University of Michigan, one of America’s premier music schools. “Raise the Roof” is part Stan Kenton, part Xavier Cugat, and entirely riveting.

Henry Cowell

Eugene Goosens, when he was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, solicited fanfares from leading composers around the world. Henry Cowell submitted his own entry, “Fanfare for the Latin-American Allies” (1942). His fellow American composers regarded Cowell highly. Virgil Thompson wrote, “Henry Cowell’s music covers a wider range in both expression and technique than that of any other living composer.”
Cowell’s works are eclectic; like Igor Stravinsky, Cowell changed styles like runway models change clothes. Early on, he tilted more toward the musical avant-garde. However, as Cowell’s career progressed, he backed his style away from the bleeding edge. In 1942, the U.S. was at war with the Axis powers, and Brazil helped out with patrolling the waterways; however, any involvement by most other Latin American countries was mostly symbolic.
Cowell’s fanfare is quite traditional, along the lines of British fanfares by such composers as Sir Arthur Bliss, and serves as a tribute to the solidarity of the American nations during that tumultuous period.

Manuel Ponce

The remaining composers featured in today’s concert are actual Latin Americans. Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) was a Mexican composer—a child prodigy in whom, at the age of four, his parents discovered talent when he sat down at the piano and repeated back a selection from his older sister’s piano lesson.
He studied at Mexico’s National Conservatory and also in Italy and Germany. Yet, despite his training in European music, he preferred working with the neglected tradition of Mexican popular songs, to the disappointment of European music lovers. (European composers such as Kodály, Bartók, Janáček, and Vaughan Williams would also delve into their own folk music traditions.)
Though the major portion of Ponce’s works consists of songs or piano pieces, he did write several orchestral works, including the dark and lugubrious “Poema Elegíaco.” The style sounds similar to French Impressionism, but more melodramatic. We are perhaps more accustomed to thinking of Latin music as happy music; however, this hauntingly sad and beautiful composition heads in the other direction. Elegies are for mournful occasions. Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane for a Dead Princess” as an allusion to some fictitious, abstract princess, and so the sentimentality is kept subdued; Ponce does no such thing, here. Whatever feelings Ponce seeks to evoke from the listener, it seems like they’re about something quite real and imminent.

Alberto Ginastera

Our program concludes with the “Estancia” Suite by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. His music was very self-consciously nationalistic, drawing from different Argentine traditions—most notably, the minstrel tradition of the gauchos, the South American counterpart to our own cowboys. Still, Ginastera’s music retains all of the traits we usually associate with Latin music—driving rhythms, tension-building harmonies, interspersed with moments of tender lyricism.
This piece tells the story of a city boy who loves the daughter of a rancher, but his love goes unrequited—that is, until he proves his worth by out-dancing the gauchos, whose dances are characterized by flashy, improvised footwork. The last movement, the intense and frenetic “Danza final (Malambo),” is Ginastera’s depiction of this dance competition.
The Suite premiered in 1943; however, Ginastera later expanded it into a one-act ballet. He wrote seriously difficult music, and there is no rest in “Estancia” for the performing musician, wicked or otherwise. The players will need to bring their own version of fancy footwork to the stage.