MARTHA MARCHENA, internationally acclaimed Cuban-American pianist, once again gives the world at large the present of her artistry at the service of Latin American art music composers. When others make their mark interpreting and recording works by the European master composers of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries-with some excursions into the first four decades of the twentieth-, Marchena has almost exclusively devoted her life to interpreting and recording on discs dozen after dozen of piano works from Mexico, Central America, the Caríbbean and South America. Such a task has become by now a noble crusade to preserve and bring to the attention of the world music long neglected, belonging to a part of Western Culture mostly ignored by the axis United States-Europe. This powerful and peculiar axis-which knows how many bells hang in a given Cambodian temple, how many types of Buddhist chants exist, or how many elephants were kept in the preserves of the Maharajah of Kaipur in 1752-rarely has paid attention to the splendidly varied and rich arts from "South of the Rio Grande", except in their folkloric, commercial or popular culture aspects. So, when Martha Marchena plays art music works from Cuban Juan Piñera, Panamanian Roque Cordero, Salvadorian Germán Cáceres, Mexican Mario Lavista or Puerto Rican Carlos Vázquez, she brings to life compositions by masters of the New World who do not have to apologize for their musical creativity.
In this, her most recent recording of Latin American piano works, Marchena brings forth, once more, her impeccable technique, her deep commitment to the works she interprets, her exquisite sound-so close to many of the demands of this music-, her vigorous and thorough understanding of the rhythmic vitality of these compositions, and her never erring delivery of the structure and inner workings of this invigorating music.
Marchena has selected for this recording a series of works which go in time from the Toccata of Aurelio de la Vega, written in 1957, to the Rapsodia Acquamarina of Carlos Alberto Vázquez, of 1999, or the two short pieces of Juan Piñera (from his Book before Breakfast), also written in this same year. These compositions reflect many of the styles, procedures and gestures that informed the music of the Twentieth Century, underlined here and there by melo-rhythmic figures derived from the diverse and opulent panoply of Latin American folk and popular music. Nationalistic touches are evident in certain of the works; in others they are very subtle and diluted or not present at all. In general, all the compositions reveal a vigorous, motoric discourse, which makes the music communicative, direct and appealing.
Throughout the history of music some individual composers (Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Schoenberg, as examples) realized single-handedly the incredible feat of totally changing the stylistic direction of music. At other moments, a group of composers redefines a vocabulary somewhat in use (the German Baroque composers, the early European romantics, the trinity Bruckner-Mahler-Strauss, the pivotal Berg-Webern-Boulez triumvirate). Often, some great composers have made their presence felt by simply refining a given lexicon (Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Hindemith, Prokofieff). None of the works played by Marchena in this recording breaks new ground or changes the course of music. Rather, they represent different aspects of how a given music language can be enriched by the personal expressions of each of the composers represented in this disc. With different idiosyncrasies, these composers offer solid works which go from rigidly structured ones to rhapsodic free-form examples. In many cases, the exploration of timbric elements form the core of the piece. Always, however, this collection of compositions represents a fresh approach to older formulas. Some of the works are utterly pianistic, adding brilliance to the conceptual elements; others weigh heavily in the direction of a fascinating treatment of the harmonic process. The listener will travel many roads and be rewarded by the variety of the musical tapestry, thus expanding his or her musical journey with short side trips to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Northern part of South America, courtesy of Martha Marchena. As a passing thought, it is important to know that many Latin American composers have expressed, privately and publicly, their admiration for her playing and for her role as constant crusader for their music. Two, in fact (Puerto Rican Carlos Vázquez and Cuban Juan Piñera), have written for her the respective works which appear in this recording, and a third, Santo Domingo's Licinio Mancebo, has also composed a work for Marchena. Two more (Puerto Rican Rafael Aponte Ledée and Salvadorian Germán Cáceres) are in the process of writing works for Marchena. As the great Cuban poet José Martí once said: "To honor, honors".
Now, to the composers featured in this recording and to their works.
Aurelio de la Vega
AURELIO DE LA VEGA was born in La Habana, Cuba, on November 28, 1925, and became an American citizen in 1966. According to composer and conductor Max Lifchitz, "he is a vital artistic figure both in Latin America and in the United States". De la Vega studied in his native land with Frederick Kramer (1942-1947) and in California with Ernst Toch (1947-1948). He also holds degrees from the University of Havana and from the Ada Iglesias Music Institute, and occupied important positions in Cuba (Dean, School of Music, University of Oriente; Advisor, National Institute of Culture; Vice-President, Havana Philharmonic Orchestra). After travelling throughout the United States as lecturer (1952-1954) he settled in the Los Angeles area, and was Visiting Professor at the University of Southern California (summer, 1959). From that year until 1992 he was Professor of Music Composition and Director of the Electronic Music Studio at California State University, Northridge. In 1971, he was the recipient of the Outstanding Professor Award of the entire California State University System. In 1985 he received a Fulbright scholarship and taught at the University of Rio de Janeiro for six months. At present, he is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of California State University, Northridge.
De la Vega has lectured extensively in Cuba, the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Brazil, Canada, Spain, Argentina and Chile, mainly on contemporary art music and on the pictorial art of Latin America. His articles and essays, which are numerous, have appeared in publication throughout the Americas, England and Spain. His numerous compositions (many published and commercially recorded) have been almost all commissioned works from1962 on, and have been played bymajor orchestras, ensembles, important soloists and singers in many cities throughout the world. De la Vega has written works for all media except opera. He has received a great number of prizes, awards and distinctions (having been twice the receiver of the Friedheim Award of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), as well as honors and decorations from various foreign governments for his contributions to North and Latin American art music. De la Vega is Member of the Academy of Arts and Letters of Chile and of the Brazilian Academy of Music.
Aurelio de la Vega's Toccata, composed in 1957, and dedicated to pianist Jorge Bolet, is one of the last works of the composer written in Cuba, just before he moved to California. A forceful, restless, virtuosic work, the composition clearly reveals the pan-tonal harmonic palette of the composer. Two contrasting elements inform the work: a very rapid cascade of notes in various groupings and registers (heard at the opening of the piece) and a lyric, intense and more tranquil section. After several developments of both components, the work closes as it began, with a quick flourish of notes coming to a swift ending.
MARCELA RODRÍGUEZ was born in Mexico City on April 18, 1951. A composer whose music has been internationally played, her main mentors were María Antonia Lozano, Julio Estrada and Leo Brouwer. Her works include solo compositions for diverse instruments, art songs, chamber music, symphonic pieces and two operas. Since 1979 she has continuously written music for theatrical presentations, having worked with the main Mexican theater directors, as well as music for dance groups. From 1994 to 2000 she was the recipient of various scholarships given by the National System of Creators, Mexico.
Among hermost important compositions are her two operas, La Sulamita (premiered in Mexico City in 1991) and Séneca, o todo nos es ajeno (also premiered in Mexico City in September, 2000); a Concerto for Recorders and Orchestra (1998), heard in New York in 1994, played by the American Composers Orchestra; a Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra; a Cello Concerto; Vértigos ("Vertigoes"), for percussion quartet and orchestra, premiered at the Festival Cervantino (Mexico) of 1996, and repeated at that same venue in 1997 and 1998; Lumbres 1, 2, and 3, for cello solo and for violin and cello; El Horizonte ("The Horizon") for three flutes; a song cycle on texts by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, for soprano and orchestra (commissioned by the Centro Histórico Festival of Mexico City); the ballet 4:14 AM, premiered at the Chicago Contemporary Art Museum, and the Macbeth Suite, for eight cellos, premiered in 2002 in Mexico City. Her most recent major work is Requiem Mexicano ("Mexican Requiem"), commissioned by the Festival Cervantino (Mexico) of 2005.
Como el agua en el agua ("Like the water in the water"), for piano, was written in 1985 for Alicía Urreta, who premiered it in 1986. It is an Impressionistic-Minimalist work, reflecting the composer's feelings regarding plays of water. Several motives stated in the high register of the piano, descend in various manners throughout the keyboard, creating an attractive and suggestive aquatic atmosphere.
Carlos Alberto Vázquez
CARLOS ALBERTO VÁZQUEZ, born in 1952, is a very active figure in Latin American art music, and one of the most outstanding composers from Puerto Rico. Author of symphonic, choral, chamber music and solo works, he is also well known as a theater and electronic music composer. He studied at the University of Puerto Rico, University of Pittsburgh, New York University and at La Sorbonne in Paris, where he earned a doctoral degree.
Since the early 1970s his works have been premiered and played in many countries of the Americas and in several European cities. Besides his reputation as a composer, Vázquez has been a most active organizer of music festivals, a successful producer of musical events, a lecturer and an editor. He was founder and first President of Puerto Rico's National Association of Composers. As such, he undertook an active campaign to bring recognition to Puerto Rican art music composers. At present, he is Executive Director of the Caribbean Composers Forum organization, and Professor at the Music Department of the University of Puerto Rico. Vázquez is a Founding Member of the Colegio de Compositores Latinoamericanos de Música de Arte (Latin American Art Music Composers College).
The harmonically advanced music style of his compositions is almost always full of references to Puerto Rican folklore and to many rhythmic and melodic gestures of the Island's popular music.
Rapsodia Acquamarina is a solo piano work specifically written in 1999 for Martha Marchena. As a rhapsody, the piece is quite liberal in regards to form and virtuosic in character. Rhythms associated with Caribbean music serve as a departing point for an expressive work.
ALBA POTES was born in Cali, Colombia, where she began her musical studies at the Conservatorio Antonio María Valencia. Later, she further studied at Universidad del Valle (University of the Valley), also in Cali. In 1983 she moved to the United States, where she continued her advanced musical studies. She holds a DMA in Composition from Temple University, and has studied with Ursula Mamlok, Matthew Greenbaum, León J. Simar and Maurice Wright. At present, she teaches at the Mannes College of Music, College Preparatory Division, in New York City.
Ms. Potes has received numerous commissions from various organizations, among them the Colombian Ministry of Culture, the Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts (Philadelphia), and Colombia's Banco de la República (Colombia's Bank of the Republic). From 1998 to 2007 she has been the recipient of consecutive ASCAP Awards. Potes' orchestral compositions Cantares para Orquesta ("Chants for Orchestra") and Reflexiones ("Reflections") were winners of the 2002 New Music Reading Sessions of the Women's Philharmonic in San Francisco. She was also winner of the Music of Changes Competition in Los Angeles, where she enjoyed a concert dedicated to her music.
The New York Times has described Alba Potes' Canciones Nocturnas ("Nocturnal Songs") as "a work of exquisite, nimble nocturnal shadows, which are the very soul of brevity", and her Cánticos para Cinco ("Chants for Five") as a composition of "calmly weaving counterpoint, undulant dance rhythms and elegant atonal harmonies".
Celebrating Women's Month in March of 2006, the Latin American Cultural Center of Queens, New York, and The Women's Council of New York awarded her recognition for "outstanding achievements as a composer".
Tres Piezas Breves para Piano ("Three Brief Pieces for Piano") were composed between 1991 and 1997, and premiered by Cahrles Abramovic to most positive reviews. The first piece, Breve ("Brief") (1991), is characterized by delicate and intimate sonorities that appear in various registers of the piano. The second piece, Calmato; Agitato ("Calm; Agitated") (1997), has two different parts: a six-measure phrase at the beginning and short and percussive notes in the following three measures. There is a constant dialogue between these two contrasting ideas, which evolve into longer melodic gestures toward the middle of the piece. The third one, Enérgico ("Energetic") (1993) is fast and rousing, and offers a reminiscence of the syncopated impulses of the Bambuco Fiestero ("Festive Bambuco") –a traditional rhythm from the Colombian Andes.
GERMÁN CÁCERES, who many consider the most important Salvadorian composer, was born in El Salvador on July 9, 1954. He is also a noteworthy conductor who has played and helped to disseminate many works by Mexican, Central and South American composers as well as several from the Caribbean Basin. After music studies in his native land under Jon Cubicec and Esteban Servellón, he entered the Julliard School of Music (New York) in 1973 and four years later graduated from said school. Post-graduate studies in composition with Stanley Wolfe and David Diamond, in addition to private instruction with Julián Orbón and José Serebrier, from whom he received lessons in conducting, helped him to establish an ever growing reputation as an important new voice in the Latin American art music scene. In 1989 he obtained a Doctoral degree in Composition at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a student of Jonathan Kramer. Since 1978, Cáceres' works have been played at many prestigious music festivals in Mexico City, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Washington, Charleston, Amsterdam, San José (Costa Rica), Caracas, La Habana and Buenos Aires, as well as many other cities in the United States and Europe. His biography appears in several dictionaries published in New York, London and Madrid. As Founder and Director of the Contemporary Music Festival of San Salvador, Cáceres has played, and continues to play, a fair amount of works by composers from the Americas.
In 1977, Cáceres' Fantasía sobre una Cadencia de Gesualdo ("Fantasy on a Cadence by Gesualdo"), for wind sextet, won First Prize of the Tribuna de Música Latinoamericana (Rosario, Argentina). In January of 1999, Cáceres was appointed Honorary Adviser of the American Biographical Institute, and also in that same year he received the Prize in Music of the Salvadorian Union of Artists and Writers.
Lacónicas ("Laconics") was written after a lecture of Italo Calvino's essay Rapidity: Six Proposals for the Next Millennium. In this essay, Calvino states that he would like to write a collection of stories consisting of a single phrase, or even a single line, questioning if this could be possible. Germán Cáceres' Lacónicas tries to translate Calvino's inquiry into music.
JUAN PIÑERA is, arguably, one of themost relevant Cuban composers who remained in his homeland after the Castro Marxist Revolution, which took place in 1959. He was born in Havana in 1949, and studied piano there with César Pérez Sentenat, Silvio Rodríguez and Margot Rojas, and composition with José Ardévol-the Catalonian composer who emigrated to Cuba in the early 1930s and who established the Grupo de Renovación ("Renovation Group"), the first truly contemporary art music collective movement in Cuba.
Piñera is the recipient of both national and international prizes. Being a pianist himself, his catalogue of works leans heavily in the direction of numerous piano compositions. On the other hand, he has written extended vocal and instrumental works. Among these there are two operas, one of which, La Taza de Café ("The Cup of Coffee"), was premiered in Havana with success. Several of his ballets have been written for Alicia Alonso and the Cuban National Ballet. Author of symphonic works, concertos for viola and orchestra, and for guitar and orchestra, songs, chamber music compositions, choral works, and electronic music works, he has often written incidental music for the theater, for television and for the movies. He has just completed the music for the film El Viejo Inmóvil ("The Immovable Old Man", inspired by José Lezama Lima's famous book Paradiso ("Paradise"). Piñera has several radio programs in Havana, where he constantly plays music by contemporary Latin American art music composers, and by contemporary composers from the world scene.
Libro Antes del Desayuno ("Book Before Breakfast") is a series of rather brief piano pieces always written before his first daily meal. The work, composed in 1999 for Martha Marchena, shows Piñera's intimate way of handling sounds. Marchena plays two pieces from the Libro: Casi una pregunta ("Almost a question"), for the left hand, and Casi una respuesta ("Almost and answer") for the right hand. Piñera himself says that "the pieces from the Libro Antes del Desayuno were all written on one condition: that they had to be finished before breakfast. Sometimes the pieces became more extended and complicated, thus pushing breakfast further into the day. Therefore, a kind of maxim appeared: the one who does not work does not eat. In reality, the writing of the pieces became exercises in self-discipline imposed on me by myself, and this was, at the same time, hard and rewarding".
MARIO LAVISTA is today, possibly, the most prominent art music composer of Mexico. Born in 1943, he studied in Mexico with Spanish-Mexican composer Rodolfo Halffter and with Héctor Quintanar, and participated, from 1963 to 1967, in the Composition Workshop of the National Conservatory of Music of Mexico under the tutelage of Carlos Chávez. In Europe, he studied with Jean-Etienne Marie, Henri Pousseur, Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In Darmstadt he became acquainted with Gyorgy Ligeti, who exerted influence in his aesthetic development. In the 1970s he studied electronic music in Tokyo. Musicologist Gérard Béhague characterized Lavista as "a bona fide experimentalist, relying on improvisation and chance operations, exploring new sonorous possibilities (one of his string quartets is written entirely in harmonics), combining electro-acoustic and visual elements, and attempting to expand the concept of musical time and space". His 1968 Divertimento, for example, exists in two versions: the first one includes a woodwind quintet, five wood blocks, three transistor radios, five microphones, five loudspeakers, four amplifiers, three potentiometers and a mike mixer; the second version adds audience participation, whose members are provided with noise-producing objects. Also, very much influenced by John Cage's most extreme interpretation of indeterminacy, many of Lavista's compositions from the 1970s are based on this concept, like the two versions of Pieza para un(a) pianista y un piano ("Piece for a pianist and a piano"), where, in the second version, Lavista adds a second pianist and a second piano both of which remain silent throughout the piece, "communicating the silence to the audience". The composer has been described by Nicholas Slonimsky as "representing the extreme left wing of the Mexican music avant-garde". All this radicalism and all the experimentation give way to a gradual transformation of the composer's way to express himself. Roughly, the last twenty five years of Lavista's output return to traditional notation, although the works, many overtly lyrical, always explore the timbric possibilities of the instruments he employs.
Lavista has been recipient of awards and honors, among them a Guggenheim Foundation Grant (1987-1988), the National Prize of Arts and Science (Mexico, 1991), the Mozart Medal ((1999), and a Grammy nomination (CRI recording of American Voices, 1999). He is a member of the Mexican Academy of the Arts since 1987. In 1982 he founded the influential music journal Pauta and served as its Director until the demise of the review. Lavista has held important teaching positions in Mexico throughout the years. Possibly the most relevant has been his tenure, from 1970 on, as Professor of 20th century music analysis and composition at the Conservatory of Music, Mexico City. Lavista has been a Visiting Professor at Indiana University, at the University of Chicago, at the University of California at Santa Barbara and at the University of Wisconsin.
Simurg, composed in 1980 and dedicated to the German-Mexican composer Gerhart Muench, is one of the best known works of Mario Lavista. Strictly notated, the piece represents the mature composer of later years, where open forms, indeterminacy, chance elements, aleatoric procedures and noise-producing devices totally disappear, to be replaced by a sensitive use of color within the parameters of regular, albeit complex notation.
The title of this Lavista work is taken from an essay by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (one of the 20th century literary giants, and a non-Nobel laureate due to his right wing political ideas), El acercamiento a Almotásin ("Getting close to Almotásim"). In one of the extended paragraphs from this essay, Borges revisits a poem by the Persian mystic Fárin-al Din Abú Talib Muhámmad ben Ibrahim Attar, who explains that Simurg is the remote King of all the birds.
Lavista's Simurg is a study in contrasting dynamics, abounding in grace notes, exploration of the extreme registers of the piano, and metrical complexities. This last characteristic creates elongated rhythmic values of a fluid nature. The Allegro risoluto section, although notated exactly, gives at times the impression of aleatoric procedures. The last extended segment of the piece (Lontano, estatico) is based on vertical sonorities of a intriguing nature, bringing the composition to a serene and very soft ending.
ROQUE CORDERO, one of Panama's most distinguished composers, was born in the country's capital on August 16, 1917 and died in Dayton, Ohio in December of 2008. Cordero studied composition in the United States with Ernst Krenek and conducting with Dmitri Mitropoulos, Stanley Chaple and Leon Barzin. He was Director of the Panamanian National Institute of Music and Artistic Director and Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of his native country. In 1966, he came to the United States, accepting an invitation to become Assistant Director of the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University (Bloomington) and Professor of Composition at this University. Later on, he was Professor of Composition at Illinois State University for 27 years, retiring from this institution as Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Several of his compositions have received international awards: First Symphony (First Prize, Symphony of the Americas Competition, Detroit; premiered in this city in 1947), Second Symphony (in one movement; Caro de Bocsi Prize; Caracas 2nd International Music Festival; premiered in Caracas in 1957), Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1964 Koussevitzky International Recording Award), and Third String Quartet (Costa Rica Latin American Music Competition; premiered in san José, Costa Rica, in 1977).
Cordero's influence as a remarkable music educator has had an international scope. His Curso de Solfeo ("Solfège Course"), published by Ricordi Americana (Argentina), has been in use in many Latin American countries, among them Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Mexico.
One of the very few Latin American composers to adopt since his early years the twelve-tone method of composition, he used dodecaphonic techniques in a most personal manner incorporating, occasionally, elements of the Panamanian folklore and of Panamanian popular music. All of Roque Cordero's compositions are characterized by a strong sense of rhythm and by forceful and passionate statements, both lyric and dramatic.
Cinco Preludios Nuevos ("Five New Preludes") were written in 1982 and 1983 and dedicated to pianist Linda Lamb Hirt, who had commissioned Cordero's Piano Sonata, and who premiered them in Chicago. This work shows Cordero's way of manipulating twelve tone techniques, closer to Berg's ways than to Schoenberg's or Webern's usage. Some elements in the Preludes are of a declamatory nature, others are very contrapuntal. On several occasions he plays with accelerando and ritardando gestures applied to one or several notes, or to chords, at times creating an oscillatory feeling between very quick note values (like grace notes in various groupings) and longer value notes. The last of the Preludes (Presto) is a good example of Cordero's effective piano writing.
We thus come to the end of a fascinating journey, one that hopefully will reward the listener of this music with new perspectives, helping him or her to obtain a more clear evaluation of Latin American art music. May the experience be a truly positive one.
Aurelio de la Vega - Northridge, June of 2009
This recording was made possible with the support and generosity of Kean University, Dr. Dawood Farahi, President and Ms. Lindsay Gambini, Executive Director of Theatre Management and Programming; and Radio Nacional de España-Radio Clásica, Carlos Cruz de Castro, Programming Director.
Special thanks to: Aurelio de la Vega, Guillermo Gonzalez, Esther Sestelo, Ricardo Viera and Milena Sales.