Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reencountering an Old Friend

I have to confess a great weakness for the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos, particularly where his cycle of nine "Bachianas Brasileiras" compositions are concerned. I say this having survived an age in which it seemed as if everyone and his dog had decided to take the fifth of these compositions into a recording studio (the dog being Johnny Mathis). None of these works really deserved to be reduced to the "pops" treatment they received in the Sixties, particularly since they constitute such an interesting exercise in trying to capture how the music of Johann Sebastian Bach sounded to at least one set of Brazilian ears. I suppose the lesson behind that exercise is that there is less opposition between the respective voices of Bach and Villa-Lobos than one might assume in light of their geographical and temporal separation. Nevertheless, these are compositions in Villa-Lobos' own original voice, confident it its own situation to avoid any feelings of being "stuck in the long shadow of the history of music."

Villa-Lobos, himself, was a cellist; and the instrumental resources for two of the compositions in the set, the first and the fifth, consist entirely of eight solo cello voices. A soprano is added to the fifth, which consists of two movements, "Ária (Cantilena)" and "Dança (Martelo)." The Ária is an adagio, which is very true to the spirit of those arias for solo voice that we encounter in the cantatas and passions, all the way down to being in da capo form; but Villa-Lobos introduces the twist of giving the soprano words only in the middle section of the structure. The Dança is far more Brazilian in nature, probably more in recognition of the extent to which Bach drew upon the dance forms of his own culture.

These days it is harder to encounter performances of this work, partly because of the resources it requires. However, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has a Cello Ensemble, consisting mostly of students; and, in the recital they gave last night, the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 was the only work that did not require arrangement! This made it one of the high points of the evening, since some of the arrangements, such as one by Douglas B. Moore of the overture to Gioachino Rossini's Barber of Seville for cello quartet, seemed to have their greatest value as high-wire acts. I appreciate that arrangements provide performers with an opportunity to experience actively music with which they would not otherwise engage so directly; and I like to consider any arrangement as a window into the arranger's own approach to listening, in the same spirit as the Villa-Lobos compositions (which are decidedly not arrangements). Nevertheless, every arrangement can never be more than an experiment; and not all experiments turn out for the best.

Fortunately, the weakest of the experiments came and went at the very beginning of the evening: the arrangement for multiple cellos by Colin Hampton of two movements from Bach's sixth suite for solo cello (BWV 1012). There is much to be said for the ways in which these suites approach the very sonority of the solo cello voice. (The fifth suite requires a retuning of the strings.) To my ear, however, Hampton seemed more interest in "sharing the wealth" of Bach's contrapuntal lines than in realizing a listening experience around the effect of sonority. This compared disappointingly with the arrangement for an ensemble of violas of violin duos by Béla Bartók that I found so stimulating last week. Hampton had invoked a sense of Bach but not a sense of either sound or space, and that neglect impoverished the listening experience as a whole.

On the lighter side there were arrangements that were clearly conceived for their amusement value. The transmogrification of "Frosty the Snowman" into an exercise in four-voice fugal structure was right up there with Dudley Moore's (late) Beethoven-inspired rendition of the "Colonel Bogey March." Similarly, the evening ended in recognition of the role that string quartets played in some of the Beatles hits by offering arrangements of both "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby." Leave the audience with something good for foot-tapping!

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