A couple of not exactly related events last week have renewed my fascination with the Southern Hemisphere. A visiting music journalist and radio host from Santiago, Chile, paid me a visit and regaled me with some contemporary music CDs from his country. The following day at a used/rare record shop I regularly frequent, I bought a pile of mint condition LPs of symphonic, chamber, and choral music repertoire from Brazil, most from the mid-20th century, but some dating back to the late 18th. My Columbus Day weekend, not inappropriately, turned into a listening bash of musical discoveries from the Americas.
It has always baffled me that repertoire created south of the equator rarely travels north of it with the exception of the seemingly ubiquitous music of Astor Piazzolla and Osvaldo Golijov, both of whom have lived in the United States. Even works by the most revered composers from South America—e.g. Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alberto Ginastera—rarely turn up on concert programs or the radio in the United States nowadays. A Chilean composer of comparable stature—Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919)—has actually been based in Indiana for many years, but his oeuvre is barely on anyone’s radar. Still actively composing, Orrego-Salas continues to have an impact in his hometown, Bloomington, but this being his 90th year you’d think there would have been at least a few major performances across this country. In fact, I challenge anyone reading this to come up with a list of ten composers from this part of the world whose music they heard in the last year. (BTW, you’re not allowed to repeat the names of composers I’ve just cited or the ones I’m about to mention.)
The pile of new recordings I listened to over the weekend introduced me to several composers whose music I hope to frequently revisit whenever given the opportunity: e.g. Gustavo Becerra (b.1928, Chile) whose cello concerto is extremely attractive; Mário Tavares (also born in 1928, from Brazil) who composed a delightful wind quintet; Lindembergue Cardoso (1939-1989, Brazil) whose aleatory choral piece Caleidoscópio blew my mind; Radamés Gnattali (1906-1988, Brazil), who criss-crossed between jazz and so-called classical music with equal fluidity and whose Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra is an instant crowd pleaser; or Leni Alexander (1924-2005, Chile) whose bracing twelve-tone vocabulary probably won’t please crowds but is extremely well crafted and worthy of greater exposure nevertheless. I even chanced upon a recording of an 1816 Requiem by an Afro-Brazilian composer named José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767-1830) who composed hundreds of works in a style not far from Mozart’s which the Amadeus-obsessed classical music community ought to embrace unconditionally.
But of course, as always, there’s very little pie to go around. After the obligatory standard repertoire warhorses, which conventional wisdom still insists are the pieces that most people want to hear, there’s only a tiny bit of room left for anything else. That leaves an extremely broad chronological and geographic range of music spanning world premieres from composers living in the United States, American (and sometimes world) premieres of composers from other parts of the world, older American repertoire which still eludes canonization, and older repertoire from the rest of the world that falls outside the domain of the tried and true—everything from 19th century symphonists Niels Gade and Joaquim Raff, who aren’t even from an under-acknowledged corner of the planet, to Villa-Lobos and Ginastera whose compositions ought to be heard at least as frequently as, say, Prokofiev and Janacek (whom I also treasure), but are not. And, of course, works by Prokofiev and Janacek are sadly still curiosity items in many quarters.
Admittedly were adventurous ensembles or music directors to fall in love with music by most Latin American composers, they’d have a hard time tracking the music down. Aside from Brazil’s Centro de Documentacao de Musica Contemporanea (CDMC), there are no official music information centers based in South America, and CDMC’s website is frustratingly only in Portuguese. Thanks to Orrego-Salas’s efforts, there actually is a Latin American Music Center based at Indiana University, and I just learned about an extensive archive of Brazilian music based at the University of Akron. But without the requisite promotion that has typically been the domain of publishers and service organizations, I would imagine that most of this music rarely leaves the library shelves.
However, fostering a significant musical exchange with this part of the world could lead to tremendous opportunities not only to discover so much wonderful music but also to further the cause for composers from the United States. It was fascinating to learn from my Chilean friend that contemporary music from Finland and the Netherlands regularly arrives at his radio station—no doubt through the excellent ongoing Finnish and Dutch cultural export efforts—and that the music of these Finnish and Dutch composers finds its way onto Chilean airwaves as a result. A similar initiative for American composers could lead to a vital new audience for our music abroad.