Canción de gesta (Song of Deed)
Born March 1, 1939, Havana, Cuba
Now living in Córdoba, Spain
Renowned as a composer, guitarist, and conductor, Leo Brouwer began studying guitar as a student of Isaac Nicolas. He went on to study composition at The Juilliard School and Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1987, in recognition of his contribution to music, Mr. Brouwer was selected, along with Isaac Stern and Alan Danielou, to become an honorary member of UNEAC, the union of authors, artists and composers in Cuba, and honor he shares with Menuhin, Shankar, Karajan, Sutherland, and other giants of music.
As a conductor, Mr. Brouwer has worked with orchestras around the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Scottish National Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Chamber Orchestra, and the Mexico National Symphony Orchestra. Many of Mr. Brouwer’s compositions for the guitar are now considered part of the standard repertory. His discography is comprised of over a hundred commercial recordings, and his works have been recorded by John Williams, Julian Bream, Franz Bruggen, Harry Sparnay, and others. In 1993, he composed the score for Alfonso Arau’s internationally acclaimed, award-winning film, Like Water for Chocolate. Mr. Brouwer currently serves as Music Director of the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra. Since 1992, he has also served as conductor of the Córdoba Orchestra in Spain, where he resides.
Conceived only a few years after the historical events on which it is based, Leo Brouwer’s Canción de gesta was written in 1975 as an homage to the revolutionaries who fought against Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba. Canción de gesta follows the journey aboard the boat “Granma” that brought Fidel Castro and his men from Mexico to Cuba in 1959. The work takes its title from a poem by Pablo Neruda which recalls that same voyage. Water imagery plays significant role in the music, and Brouwer includes a quote from Handel’s famous “Water Music.”
Canción de gesta was originally commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphonic Winds and later re-orchestrated for small orchestra. The work is strongly influenced by Cuban nationalism, as are other works by Brouwer, including his Cantata Juan Menéndez, Cantigas del tiempo, and the more recent Triple concierto (Sones Cubanos). In this regard, Brouwer’s work extends the tradition established by Cuban composers such as Mañuel Saumell, Amadeo Roldán, and Alejandro García Caturla.
–by Juan Miguel Moreno Calderón (translated by Erick Carballo)
AURELIO de la VEGA
Born November 28, 1925, in Havana, Cuba
Now living in Los Angeles, California
After studying at the University of Havana, earning his Ph.D. in law, at the Conservatorio Ada Iglesias, earning his Ph.D. in music composition, and studying with Fritz Kramer (in Havana) and Ernst Toch (Los Angeles), he settled in California and became Distinguished Professor of Music and Director of the Electronic Music Studio at California State University, Northridge in 1959. Since 1994, Mr. de la Vega is Emeritus Professor of this institution.
Commissioned by Zubin Mehta and dedicated to him and to the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Adiós was written in 1977 and is receiving its first performance in New York at this concert.
Adiós is an autobiographical, emotional, and evocative piece. It sums up years of creative struggle, framed by the usual dosage of loneliness, firm belief in aesthetic and stylistic gestures, encouragements, envy, fights, triumphs, personal search, applause, memories, darts, rewards, and hopes. To spice the concoction, one must add the pains and pangs and the unexpected and touching nice twitching of destiny that accompany the political exile. After the mid-1960’s, Mr. de la Vega’s style became marked by aleatoric procedures, open forms, graphic notation, less aggressiveness, and abandonment of serialism. In the next decade, the composer’s musical procedures partially returned to formal structures and big variational and developmental sections. In the words of musicologist George Skapski, “de la Vega’s musical vocabulary is characterized by dramatic treatment of voices, ever-present contrapuntal layers of motives, lyrical and passionate arch forms, vigorous rhythmic cells, and intense preoccupation with instrument as color.” All these features are present in Adiós.
As the title implies, it is a good-bye piece for Zubin Mehta, who was leaving Los Angeles to start his tenure with the New York Philharmonic. It is also a work full of optimism, of expansive sonorous planes, built in a big scale, that ends with a smile. In Hindi-Urdu, the word namasté means both “good-bye” and “hello”. In the same way, Adiós is a “bon voyage” work and a salutation. Solo passages for virtually ever first chair of the orchestra, and for every group of this musical body, embellish the overall structure of the piece.
Adiós contains references to Mahler, Bruckner, and, very briefly, to the spirit of Richard Strauss–three composers very dear to Mr. de la Vega. They served as godfathers during the early, formative years of the composer, at a time when his first teacher, the Viennese Frederick Kramer, at the piano, exposed him to them for the first time. These references are sometimes stylistic and on occasion thematic. There are moments when themes from these composers are juxtaposed and, at times, mixed with a motif from de la Vega’s first orchestral work, the Overture to a Serious Farce (1950). At other times, these materials are heard against a percussion background closely related to Cuban rhythmic patterns. Here and there, fragments of the national anthems of Cuba, the United States, and India are heard, and these serve as evocative bridges throughout the work. The Hindu anthem is the one most extensively treated (canons, imitations, augmentations, fragmentations), and, at the very end, it is heard in the trumpets as a most intense form of namasté.
–by Howard Kline
Serenata for String Orchestra
Born September 26, 1918, in Santiago de Cuba
Now living in Havana, Cuba
Harold Gramatges was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1918. In 1996 he was conferred the “Tomás Luis de Victoria” lbero-American Prize of Music, sponsored by the lbero-American Music Council, the lbero- American Cooperation Institute, and the Spanish General Society of Authors and Publishers under the auspices of the King of Spain This recently-established prize is the highest award ever conferred to refined music in the history of this artistic expression. For his teaching career of more than forty-five years, he was awarded the category of Merit Professor of the Havana Higher Institute of Arts, where he is also a Titular Professor and Head of the Composition department.
Mr. Gramatges began his education in Santiago de Cuba and studied composition afterwards in Havana with professors Amadeo Roldán and José Ardévol. He founded the Musical Renewal Group and was granted a scholarship to attend the lectures of Aaron Copland (composition) and Serge Koussevitzky (orchestra conducting) in the United States.
The Cuban Council of State has conferred him with major awards for his extensive performance, including the First Degree Félix Varela Order, the Alejo Carpentier Medal; the Medal of the Underground Struggle; the Raúl Gómez Garcia Medal; and the Medal of the 30th Anniversary of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. He has also been awarded the National Culture Distinction and the José Maria Heredia Order by the Santiago de Cuba People’s Power Assembly. He won the UNEAC Acknowledgment Prize for his compositions and is an Emeritus Member of this guild. He is also a Meritorious Founding Member of the lbero-American Council of Music.
Serenade for String Orchestra (La Serenata para Orquesta de Cuerda) was written in 1947 and dedicated to the Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil del Conservatorio Municipal de Música de La Habana (Youth Symphony Orchestra of the Havana Municipal Conservatory). This organization was founded in 1945 and is directed by the composer. The piece serves as a testimony to a specific period in the artistic life of Mr. Gramatges. The Allegretto with which the Serenata starts is an elaboration on the “guajira” rhythm. The main movement, Andante Moderato, flows expansively by way of the rhythmic cells derived from the “son”. The final Allegro heralds the “zapato criollo” (Creole shoe) and includes a central theme that has its echo in the rhythm of the popular Cuban “bolero”.
–translated by Susan Delvalle
Rapsodia Negra for Piano and Orchestra
Born August 6, 1895, Guanabacoa, Cuba
Died November 29, 1963, Tenerife, Canary Islands
Through his success in popular music, films and musical theater, as well as the concert hall, composer/pianist Ernesto Lecuona remains today as the most well-known Cuban composer in the United States, and in that sense is certainly deserving of his moniker “The Cuban Gershwin.” Among his most famous compositions are Malagueña, premiered at New York’s Roxy Theatre in 1927, and Andalucia, which became wildly popular when it was set to English lyrics in 1940 as The Breeze and I.
Growing up in an affluent and musical household, the son of a newspaper editor, Lecuona was taught piano at an early age by his older sister. He studied at the Havana National Conservatory, winning the Gold Medal for Performance at age seventeen. He also studied briefly with Maurice Ravel in Paris. A U.S. recital tour in 1916 marked Lecuona’s introduction to the United States, and soon Lecuona, with his band, The Lecuona Cuban Boys, became a leading exponent of the Cuban musical wave which swept this country from the 1920s well into the 1930s.
Lecuona went on to great success in Hollywood, scoring many films for MGM, Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox in the 1930s and 1940s, including Under Cuban Skies (1931), Always in My Heart (1942), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, and One More Tomorrow (1946). Lecuona’s output includes hundreds of songs and works for solo piano, nearly forty works for orchestra, as well as several musical theater works, including a never-performed opera, El Sombrero de Yarey.
1943 was a significant year for Lecuona: he was named honorary cultural attaché to the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC., and on October 10 of that year he made his Carnegie Hall debut conducting his Rapsodia Negra. Lecuona dedicated the piece to pianist Carmelina Delfín, who gave the Carnegie Hall premiere.
One of three works Lecuona wrote for piano and orchestra, Rapsodia Negra is a fantasy–a “mosaic” in the words of the composer–on themes from zarzuelas by Lecuona. Lecuona was fond of reusing thematic material from his songs and shorter works in his orchestral works (again a connection to Gershwin), and here the dramatic, rhythmic Spanish-influenced form provides the source for a short episodic and brilliantly virtuosic work. From the opening bars, listeners will immediately pick up on the Gershwin connection, as did those attending the first Carnegie Hall performance.
Like Gershwin, Lecuona was a bachelor and notorious bon vivant. Stories of his improvising tunes at cocktail parties are now the stuff of Hollywood legend. This off-the-cuff nature had its down-side, too. He often left a work’s orchestration to one of his friends, an in the case of Rapsodia Negra, never notated much of the percussion part, which, according to accounts of the Carnegie Hall premiere, made extensive use of traditional instruments from Cuba, including a “guijada,” the jawbone of an ass, which when struck, produces a unique rattle.
–by Michael Geller, with special thanks to Thomas Tirino for his insights and research on Lecuona and his music.
Although born in Spain, Julián Orbón was an important member of the Cuban musical movement, even becoming a Cuban citizen. In 1942, another Spanish expatriate, composer José Ardévol, gathered around him a group of young composers to form the basis of the Grupo de Renovación Musical (Group for Music Renewal), whose main goal was to create a school of composition with specifically Cuban features. Julián Orbón immediately joined the group, which also included Harold Gramatges, Hilario González, Argeliers León, Serafin Pro, Edgardo Martín, and Gisela Hernández. At first attuned to the group’s ideas, Orbón later started to feel that his colleagues’ work imposed on him strictures he was not ready to accept. Thus in 1949, Orbón left the group and pursued a more personal and independent line of musical thought that made him attain maturity as a composer at a relatively early age. In those years Orbón tried a musical language less anchored in traditional tonality and more tense in its contrasts; this period of search produced some important works such as the Danzas sinfónicas (1955), Himnus ad galli cantum (1956) and the Concerto grosso (1958).
At the outset of this mature period, Orbón wrote one of his best works, the Tres versiones sinfónicas (Three symphonic versions) in 1953. In each of its three parts, Orbón explores a distinct musical element and gives ample proof of his knowledge of the music from other eras. The first part, Pavana, is evidence of Orbón’s respect for Spanish music of the sixteenth century. However, the orchestration is not an attempt at archaism; on the contrary, it offers many modern touches that now and then resemble the orchestral writing of Aaron Copland (1900-1990), who was Orbón’s composition teacher at Tanglewood in 1946. The second movement, Conductus, alludes to the Medieval practice of adding voice-parts to an existing secular melody and proposes an interesting series of melismatic variations, of which the composer was especially proud. In Xylophone, the work’s concluding movement, Orbón’s main reference is the sound of the Afro-Caribbean world, with special emphasis on orchestral colour and rhythmic drive. It is true that Xylophone is much shorter than Pavana and Conductus, but this is due to the fact that the material was developed to its full potential, and Orbón saw no need to extend the piece artificially. With Tres versiones sinfónicas, Orbón launched a period of musical maturity which would reach a high point in 1960 with the Tres cantigas del Rey. In 1954, Tres versiones sinfónicas won for Orbón the Juan José Landaeta Prize at the First Latin American Music Festival, held in Caracas, Venezuela. From then on, Orbón’s name was heard on the international scene, and his music emerged, at least partially, from the regional obscurity it had endured until then.
–by Juan Arturo Brennan, courtesy of Dorian Recordings® ©1994