Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Villa-Lobos conducts his own music

Photo from Museu Villa-Lobos
In this picture Villa-Lobos rehearses the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Wieneker Synfoniker) in the Grosser Konzerthaus, March 13, 1953. I've posted about Villa-Lobos as a conductor before, and in this post I'll re-use some of that material here and in the next post, where I talk about Villa conducting music by other composers.

When Villa-Lobos came to New York after the war, it was primarily to present himself to America as a composer.  Offering himself as a conductor of his own music made it easier to arrange performances. Here's a list of works he was ready to present in Europe and New York, from the late-1940s. His second Piano Concerto was written in 1948, with the rest coming in the 1950s. There are already a lot to choose from!

This prospectus is from a folder held by the NY Philharmonic Archives.

Villa had conducted his own music in Brazil for a long time. In August of 1918 in Rio he led an orchestra in the first performance of Naufragis de Kleonica. This, according to Pierre Vidal's notes in Villa-Lobos par lui-même, was his first gig as conductor, but he may also have conducted his music in 1915, or even 1908. He presented two of his early symphonies at a Rio de Janeiro concert for the King of Belgium in 1920, and in November and December of 1922 conducted four orchestral concerts in Sao Paulo. But when he made his way over the Paris for his first European trip in 1923 it was mainly his piano and chamber music that made his name outside of Brazil. He wasn't a good enough pianist to play his own works, so he relied on the support of pianists like Rubinstein, Novaes, Vera Janacopulos, and Joao de Souza Lima. The Salle Gaveau concert of October 24, 1927, was a milestone. Villa-Lobos conducted the premiere of Choros no. 10, which Figaro termed "the music of the future." The next year saw the first concert of his orchestral music in New York, but it was Leopold Stokowski who conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Dancas africanas. On October 21, 1929 he was able, though, to conduct for himself his massive new Choros no. 12, with the Boston Symphony. In the 1930s he began the Bachianas Brasileiras series, which included some orchestral works, so along with the orchestral Choros and his first concertante works, he had enough music to present in any venue.

With the rise of modernism in Europe the always adaptable orchestral musicians made their way through the new music, and the brusque Brazilian made his wishes known, largely in French, but I suspect also largely with gestures. Villa-Lobos had himself been a professional orchestral musician, working as a cellist in cinema "orchestras", which would have been small chamber groups, but then in the pit at the Opera, and onstage with large Rio de Janeiro orchestras. His music quickly won over the critics in Paris, but there were always reactionary elements in the audience. At a March 14, 1930 concert in Paris Villa-Lobos, Edgard Varèse and Marcel Mihalovici appeared together as composer-conductors. The concert included Varese's Offrandes and Octandre, along with a selection of chamber works by Villa-Lobos. A newspaper reviewer reported:
At the end of yesterday’s concert, ‘chez Lamoureux,’ certain virtuosos of the whistle, endowed with uncommon pulmonary vigor, showed their disgust for the Choros of M. Villa-Lobos. What a tumult… For a quarter hour, members of the audience bellowed invective at one another…
Such was musical life between the wars.

In the 1930s Villa's music continued to attract star conductors. Dmitri Mitropolous conducted the premiere of Bachianas Brasileiras no. 2 in Venice, of all places, in 1934. Villa's close friend Walter Burle Marx, himself a composer, conducted Villa's music in Brazil, and later in America. Though Villa-Lobos was busy with his educational work in Brazil in the 1930s, there were some important occasions when he mounted the podium, among which are the premiere of the ballet Jurupary (based on Choros no. 10) in Paris in 1934, the premiere of Bachianas Brasileiras no. 3 with the CBS Symphony Orchestra in New York in 1939, and the premiere of Bachianas Brasileiras no. 8 with the orchestra of the Academy of St. Cecilia in Rome in 1947.

1944 was an important milestone for Villa-Lobos the conductor. On November 21, 1944 he conducted the Werner Jansson Orchestra, possibly at the Hollywood Bowl, in a performance of one of his older works, the 2nd Symphony of 1917. Part of this concert was recorded, or perhaps there were microphones at a dress rehearsal, and it ended up on an LP released in the Historical series of Aries Records in the early 1960s. The orchestra was billed on the LP, for some reason, as the Maracana Symphony Orchestra, perhaps to make it seem more Brazilian. This, as far as I know, was Villa's first work as a conductor on a recording.

After this modest start, it took more than a decade before Villa's final flowering as a recording conductor, in the famous sessions with Pathé-Marconi in Paris in the period 1954-58. Here he is, in charge of the cellists of the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Francaise, and the soprano Victoria de los Angeles:

This is one of the great masterpieces in the history of the gramophone, and it's always been a best-seller for EMI and whatever corporations it evolved into. The results from those sessions filled 10 LPs:

These represent an amazing accomplishment; one of the great recorded legacies of a 20th century composer/conductor. All of the Bachianas are included, along with a selection (unfortunately rather slight) from the Choros, the four suites from the Descrobrimento do Brasil, one symphony and two concertos. From this there was much slicing and dicing into selections, boxed sets and many versions of cover art, for release in Europe, North America and Brazil. In 1991 EMI France released Villa-Lobos par lui-même, all 10 of the LPs remastered, and released on 6 CDs. This is the most prized CD set in my Villa-Lobos collection.

These are certainly reference recordings, in spite of some sonic deficiencies. On the whole they're well-played; Villa seems to have had the time to rehearse his excellent French musicians. Was he a good conductor? I posted about this question back in 2009; I'll send you there now to read more. Villa-Lobos was a man of the theatre, and his music had deep roots in the improvisational style of the choroes and the cinema orchestra. "Records are for the moment," he once said, "the temperamental instant!" He saw some value in the nailing down the instant, but I don't think he saw what he was doing in the recording studio meant more than what he did in the concert hall.

Next time I'll post about Villa-Lobos as a conductor of other people's music. It'll be a much shorter post!

1 comment:

  1. very nice article. I wish he was more internationally acclaimed like the other great composers of the 20th century, such as rachmaninoff and stravinsky are. his music was absolutaly brilliant