Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Prospect of a Future Guitar

The Prospect of a Future Guitar from Mickael Viegas on Vimeo.

This is a fascinating project from guitarist Michael Viegas, which involves performances and arrangements (by Viegas) of Villa's complete music for guitar. These are based on his theories of the limitations of the instrument and the addition of both melodic and harmonic material which from a close study of the scores Viegas feels might have been the composer's true intentions. The guitarist overdubs additional guitar parts, and he also mentions 'orchestrations' though there are no details of these included in the video. As well, Viegas brings up the possibility of a future re-design of the guitar (hence the name of the album: The Prospect of a Future Guitar) which might make live performance of the the kind of music he envisions a possibility.

The album recording was completed in November of 2014, and Viegas was busy with post-production during 2015. The album is not due to be released until later this winter. The only online source I've found so far is at, which shows a release date of February 19, 2016. Here are the front and back covers of the two-CD set:

I look forward to a discussion of what this approach might mean for this amazing but perhaps over-familiar music. The law of diminishing returns might be in operation here, when nearly every guitarist records at least the Preludes and first Choros, and often the complete music for guitar. It's sometimes hard to find a marketing niche, if not a special way of playing the music. From the very musical and well-played clips included in the video the album, and its underlying radical rethinking of Villa's music, promises at least to be a shot in the arm for this well-worn music. 

Villa-Lobos by Fraga

Caricaturists love Villa-Lobos; here's a great one by the Brazilian artist Fraga, from his excellent blog, Fraga Caricaturas.

#ThrowBackThursday, from August 2010.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Villa-Lobos Symphonies Project

I missed this when it came out: the March-April 2013 issue of Musical Opinion includes an article by conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky about the upcoming Naxos series of Villa-Lobos Symphonies recordings with OSESP. Here is the original plan laid out in the article:

There's been some slippage on the timelines, but it's nice to see some pieces on this list that are overdue for modern, easily accessible recordings. Specifically, I'm excited about Odisséia de uma raça and the Fantasia Concertante for 32 cellos. 

Here's where we are so far in the project:

Symphonies no. 6 & 7

Symphonies no. 3 & 4

Symphony no. 10

Symphony no. 12

What's next? Maestro Karabtchevsky will be performing Symphonies no. 9 & 11 in two OSEP concerts in February, so it's a good bet those two pieces will show up on the next CD. Check it out if you're in Sao Paulo next month!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Letters to Posterity

The guitar music of Villa-Lobos is popular. Of 541 Villa-Lobos CDs available at ArkivMusic, 156 include music for guitar, and new ones show up pretty regularly. It’s relatively inexpensive music to record, with a single artist who brings his or her instrument, and not impossibly difficult engineering requirements.  And this understates the broader popularity of this music in the Classical Guitar (CG) community. Back in 2009 I analyzed ten years of Villa-Lobos concerts, and found that music for guitar near the top in popularity (139 performances for Bachianas Brasileiras #5, against 30 for Choros #1, 29 for the Preludes, 25 for the Suite Populaire Bresilienne, 20 for the Etudes, and 49 for ‘Works for Guitar’). I mentioned then that a search of YouTube would show how ubiquitous these works were. Here are the current YouTube stats:
Villa-Lobos Preludes:  about 216,000 results
Villa-Lobos Etudes: about 124,000 results
Villa-Lobos Choros 1: about 87,900 results
This is core CG repertoire, partly because of early championship by artists like Segovia, Abel Carlevaro and Julian Bream, but also because the music is so accessible, with elements of popular and erudite music intertwined. In the end, though, it’s because this music is so damn good.

How, then, does a guitarist position a new Villa-Lobos CD, and get the music heard? In last year’s excellent recital CD, Kazu Suwa chose to include three Villa-Lobos pieces. I quote from my review:
He’s picked three Villa-Lobos pieces with great character, and more importantly he plays each of them in a character-ful way. And he puts them in the penultimate spot, as they deserve, with just a sad, beautiful little piece by Mompou as a coda.
This seems an excellent way to introduce more Villa-Lobos into such a crowded marketplace. That CD, by the way, ended up on my Top 10 Albums list for 2015.

Now we come to Thomas Lyng Poulsen’s Letters to Posterity, which includes pretty much the full solo music for guitar on two CDs. This includes music of a very broad range, from salon pieces and dances Villa remembered from his days playing in chorões bands, to the more-than-pedological Etudes of the late 1920s, and on to the great Preludes of the 1940s. I wouldn’t expect a single guitarist to excel in all three areas, but Poulsen provides credible versions of pretty much all of the music. His technique is strong, and the music is clearly communicated. He’s strongest, I think, in the Preludes, which are all five really excellent. This is maybe a bit of a surprise considering Poulsen’s teaching experience; I would have expected the Etudes to be the sweet spot for a guitar teacher. Choros no. 1 didn’t quite swing the way I like it to (I prefer the Brazilians Fabio Zanon, Manuel Barrueco and Turibio Santos), and parts of the Suite Populaire Bresilienne seemed over-thought, over-serious.

But Thomas certainly did his homework. It was fun following his process from his original plan to the publication of this recording in his blog My Villa-Lobos Journey. He grappled with just this issue many times. Here he is, from August 2014, working on the Schottisch (Choro):
A word that has filled my thoughts this past week is rubato. Another one is pulse. It appears to me, that the balancing of these two mighty musical weapons is the key, to succesfully solving the pieces I have worked on so far, on this blog. Finding that balance means - I believe - searching territory bordering absurdity. Absurdly rigid and on-time, and absurdly fluid to the point of incomprehensible. When you’ve been there, I guess it’s all a matter of relaxing, and just playing... But as always, easier said, than done.
This is music which takes an interesting route between simplicity and complexity. When the issues are technical - and even Segovia had his troubles with Villa’s music - solving the technical issues won’t ‘solve’ the music by itself. When the music seems simple an artist can bring out subtleties that aren’t immediately apparent, but were clearly put there by the composer. Leonard B. Meyer called this Grammatical Simplicity and Relational Richness, in a key paper about (of course) Mozart. I value Thomas’s journey as much as his destination; both demonstrate a significant subset of the Relational Richness of the music of Villa-Lobos.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Roger Wagner conducts Villa-Lobos

I was pleased to see this album on Spotify. Wagner's LP of the Nonetto and the Quatuor, featuring the Roger Wagner Chorale and The Concert Arts Ensemble, was released in 1957. The Nonetto is a great modernist work that's still waiting for a modern, easily available recording, but this performance, and the other excellent one from the 1950s, by The Brazilian Festival Orchestra and Schola Cantorum, conducted by Hugh Ross, will certainly do in the meantime. Villa-Lobos gave this big thumb's up to Wagner for his recording:
"Roger Wagner deserves all my admiration for his dedicated work...a notable achievement in technique and sound as well as perfect interpretation."
Both recordings from the 1950s were released on a CD in 2008, which is still available, and very highly recommended.

Villa's greatest work?

I've always thought that Choros #10 is Villa-Lobos's greatest work. Written in 1926, it's been called Villa's Beethoven 9th Symphony. I remember a special performance of this work conducted by David Robertson, in the Last Night of the Proms concert of 2009. I saw it live via satellite in a Red Deer AB theatre.

My favourite version, though, is the version by John Neschling and OSESP (the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra & Chorus).

It's the climax of the great Choros series on 3 CDs from BIS, and also available in a box set along with the equally-great BIS series of Bachianas Brasileiras. You cannot do without these discs!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

New York Skyline

Villa-Lobos's New York Sky Line Melody is based on the concept of millimetrization. I quote myself, from my original post on Symphony no. 6 (which used the same technique in 1944) at the old Villa-Lobos Website (now at the new Villa-Lobos Website in Indiana):

This technique, invented by Joseph Schillinger (1895-1943), and first used by him in the late 1920s, takes pictures of real-world things - skylines or mountains, for example - and turns them into musical phrases.  It's analogous to digitization, I guess, if I'm not mixing digits, analogues and/or metaphors.  Prof. Tarasti explains:

" needs a photograph of a mountain, landscape or a hill, whose contours are transferred onto graph paper.  One then writes vertically in the margin, working upward through 85 tones in chromatic order (i.e., of the tempered scale) from C to C." - Tarasti (1995), p. 376

Apparently George Gershwin used Schillinger's system when he was writing Porgy & Bess.  Villa-Lobos used the system in New York Skyline Melody (1939), before he moved to a bigger canvas, both in his input (the mountains around Rio de Janeiro), and output (a full-scale symphony).  He also used it in on a picture of Nicholas Slonimsky's family - a story told in Slonimsky's 1945 book Music of Latin America.

The picture above is taken from Carlos Kater's article "Villa-Lobos e a 'Melodia das montanhas': Contribuição à revisão crítica da pedagogia musical brasileira", Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 1984), pp. 102-105.  I discussed NY Skyline in this post at The Villa-Lobos Magazine.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

RIP Gilberto Mendes

Photo by Luiza Sigulem
Yesterday we lost a great Brazilian composer, perhaps the greatest since Villa-Lobos. Gilberto Ambrosio Garcia Mendes was born in Santos on October 13, 1922, and died January 1, 2016, at age 93. Like every Brazilian musician he was in Villa's shadow, but Mendes, who studied with Boulez and Stockhausen, saw him as a precursor to new music. Mendes was able to build on Villa's legacy rather than spending his energy raging about or rebelling against the reactionary Villa-Lobos.

What matters in Villa-Lobos, says Mendes, "is not the Brazilian character that his music can have, rather it is the modernity of such a personal musical language that he built, at times, with some elements of our folklore and popular urban music, at other times with elements of Bach’s music, as it could have been built with any other elements and would have always been the same language, his language". This is from the excellent liner notes to the 2011 OSESP album Gilberto Mendes 90 Anos. By the way, you can download the entire album + notes at the OSESP site.

Though his music fit smack in the middle of the avant garde in Brazil, he was never doctrinaire or too serious about anything. One of my favourite pieces of his is Ulysses in Copacabana Surfing with James Joyce and Dorothy Lamour. As ironic as it might be intended, it's full of lush, romantic exoticism, and is a lovely piece in itself.

Back in 2009 I posted here at The Villa-Lobos Magazine on Mendes's analysis of Villa-Lobos the Modernist. Mendes was a perceptive fellow!

One of my favourite Mendes CDs is from Filip Rathé and the Spectra Ensemble. Unfortunately, it's not on Spotify or the Naxos Music Library. Here's a link to more information, with 30 second clips from each track.