Through Argentine Eyes

April 2007

Program Notes

 Arroz con leche

Carlos Guastavino  (1912-2000)

 The Wanderer

Ezequiel Viñao (b. 1960)

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 Milonga del Ángel

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), arr. Javier Zentner (b. 1951)


 Lamentations of Jeremiah

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)

   i. O vos omnes qui transitis per viam


   ii. Ego vir videns paupertatem meam


   iii. Recordare Domine quid acciderit nobis


*  *   *   *   *   *   *

 Se Equivocó la Paloma

Carlos Guastavino

 Mudanzas (Variations on the Malambo)

rad., arr. Oscar Escalada (b. 1956)

*  *   *   *   *   *   *   

 Coral del Arrecife (Chorale of the Reef) from Oceana  

Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960)

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Verano Porteño

Astor Piazzolla, arr. Oscar Escalada


This concert is unique in the 14-year history of Chicago a cappella, for several reasons. We have never before had 12 singers in the ensemble, all on stage at the same time. The sound in rehearsal, with a dozen people instead of our usual nine, has been a delightful revelation. We have never had a conductor directing the entire concert from the front of the ensemble. Finally, we have never had dancers gracing our stage. It all adds up to a milestone in our performing life, and I am thrilled that you are here to help us bring it into being.

The program was born two and half years ago, with a single phone call. Joseph Jennings, the Grammy-award-winning music director of Chanticleer and a longtime colleague, called me to ask if I would be interested in championing a new piece of music with him, for a co-commission of a major new work, to be funded by the prestigious agency known as Meet the Composer. In addition to being honored at the invitation—for I think the world of Joe’s talent and accomplishments—I was intrigued by what he told me of the composer, a young man from Argentina called Ezequiel Viñao.

Ezequiel Viñao had contacted Joe with the notion that the piece would be roughly half an hour long, making it a monumental undertaking regardless of musical style, and through-composed in a single movement. Most of the major works in the a cappella literature are, like Mass settings, made up of several movements. This major work would be different, since it is based on an extended single poem, The Wanderer, from the medieval Anglo-Saxon tradition, with musical styles and especially rhythms based on medieval and Renaissance polyphony.

The Viñao work is conceived in six voice parts, which Chanticleer sang with two singers to a part. The commission required that Chicago a cappella commit likewise to having twelve singers in the ensemble for this set of performances. After my staff and board colleagues agreed to commit to the extra funding, I contacted Joe to let him know the commission was “a go.” Fortunately, Ezequiel Viñao is of sufficient stature that the grant application sailed through Meet the Composer, and he was able to complete the work well in advance of the West Coast premiere by Chanticleer last fall.

Now the challenge was this: how to create a Chicago a cappella-style program around such a huge work? If you’re familiar with our programming, you know that we usually do concerts of between 18 and 23 short pieces, between 90 seconds and 6 minutes in length. I asked for help from Philip Brunelle from Vocalessence, a sister ensemble in the Twin Cities. He suggested that I think about an all-Argentine program. He guided me to Ginastera’s Lamentations, which quickly stole my heart, and works by Guastavino.

After being convinced that there really was enough a cappella repertoire to make an effective performance, I stuck my neck out and went ahead with an all-Argentine program. As usual, our fabulous board and staff have supported the decision. Right at that time, Matt Greenberg told me that Osvaldo Golijov had just been appointed composer-in-residence by the CSO and helped me to locate the one unaccompanied choral work that Golijov has composed!

The end result, this concert program called “Through Argentine Eyes,” is a rich panorama of works that have sprung from the musical wellsprings of Argentina, both from composers who spent their childhoods there and from those who spent their whole careers there. An extended conversation with Ezequiel Viñao, well before his piece was finished, persuaded me that eclecticism is the heart and soul of the Argentine aesthetic; he argued, convincingly as usual, that point of view is the defining characteristic of the Argentine cultural aesthetic. I knew then that I would have many kindred spirits as I sought to pull together music from his mother country. I even went on a reading binge of short stories and essays by Jorge Luis Borges, the great prose stylist of Argentina.

While it is not the defining genre of Argentina, tango has certainly made its mark, and it is the art form that foreigners most readily associate with that country. The creative fusion of Piazzolla ushered in a sophisticated dance music, influenced in classical and jazz ideas, now known as nuevo tango. Piazzolla’s work stands in contrast to both the “strictly traditional” tango and the more stylized, extremely formal and probably more familiar presentation of ballroom tango. From a dancer’s point of view, traditional Argentine tango is slower, more sensual, and more supple than ballroom tango, and it is simply haunting to behold. We are fortunate to be sharing the stage with Daniel Noce, a dancer and choreographer of superb talents, and his dance partner Ramona Nita. It was a challenge in rehearsal to keep my eyes on the score I was conducting, because their dancing is so beautiful. To see a new work choreographed before your very eyes is an experience I hope you can have some day.

You will probably have heard that Argentina considers itself a European country that happens to be in South America. It is often said that the culture there is constantly looking to the east and north, across the ocean, for its identity. This grounding in Spanish and European culture has given a sophistication and unique energy to Argentina, a balance to its physical isolation from Europe. However, I have read recently in a credible magazine that the mindset of the nation is giving way, being affected in no small part by crisis and likewise by a new confidence in its own internal human capital. This shift is partly being driven by the country’s relatively recent economic collapse, where the currency was devalued by 75% and huge numbers of people truly had to start over financially. The invention which is the daughter of such necessity is prompting Argentines to looking at their own indigenous talents, materials, landscapes, and talents. No longer do people necessarily look to Paris first for fashion ideas. Buenos Aires suddenly looks pretty compelling.

No less compelling are the musical materials upon which we draw for this concert. I will tell you in full candor that The Wanderer is the single most difficult musical challenge we have ever undertaken. There are times when you are climbing a mountain that you are forced to take a moment and turn around and see the glorious view. We had a moment like that, in our third rehearsal, when everything truly worked for the first time after a difficult first ascent; the sense of accomplishment was exhilarating. In addition to the usual appreciation I feel for the singers in this group, I have come to understand just how good they really are, individually and as an ensemble; I too have been stretched as a musician.

Mostly we invite you to feel welcome, to immerse yourself in the musical riches that are found here, and to let us know how you respond to our offerings here tonight. There is nothing more powerful than live music shared between the performers and those who take the time and resources to attend the show. We are truly grateful for your presence here tonight. Enjoy!

      —Jonathan Miller


Carlos Guastavino: Arroz con leche (Sweet Rice With Milk)

“I love melody,” Carlos Guastavino once said. “I love to sing. I refuse to compose music only intended to be discovered and understood by future generations.” Originally groomed for a career in science, Guastavino was able to pursue music when his obvious talent, especially for playing the piano, won out. He was trained in his home city of Santa Fe, Argentina, and in Buenos Aires, and both studied and performed in London in his mid-30s, with appearances including BBC broadcasts. He later performed in Russia and in China.

The jury is out on whether Guastavino’s music is nationalistic or not. He certainly rejected both the neoclassical and the avant-garde. This clever and appealing choral work is based on a simple tune, “taught to me by my mother.” The tune is usually sung as a round by children. As with a few pieces in the cycle Canciones Populares Argentinas, of which this is No. 23, Guastavino treats the melody to a full-blown fugue. Ironically, though it is sometimes claimed that Guastavino used no folk music in his compositions, his music has become so well-known in Argentina that it has itself taken on the status of folk music!

Ezequiel Viñao: The Wanderer

Midwest premiere, co-commissioned with Chanticleer

About the composer:

Ezequiel Viñao was born in Buenos Aires on 21 July 1960. He first studied piano with Manuel Rego and composition with Jacobo Ficher. Early on he developed an interest in music technology and in the rhythmic cycles of Indian music, both of which were later to become features of his music.

In 1978 his skill at the keyboard drew the attention of American pianist Earl Wild. Viñao notes, “The mid-seventies were something of a cultural dead end in Argentina, particularly in so far as aesthetics came to be subordinated to politics and questions about acceptable ideological lines.” Wild was instrumental in securing a grant from the United Nations that allowed Viñao to leave his home country and move to New York.

From 1981 to 1987, Viñao attended the Juilliard School, where he also studied with Gyorgy Sandor and Milton Babbitt. In works from the 1980s such as La Noche de las Noches for string quartet and electronics, or in the solo tape piece Voices of Silence, his style was already distinctive. After graduating, he was invited to Avignon, France, to work with Olivier Messiaen in a series of televised master classes. This experience had a lasting influence on Viñao's style, particularly in relation to the use of dissonance and consonance as pure color, rather than as tension and release. This concept permeates The Conference of the Birds (1991), a work for piano and electronics inspired by a medieval Sufi text. Soon after it was completed, the piece was performed in Europe, Japan, and the United States. This piece, as well as a first book of piano Études, brought Ezequiel Viñao wider recognition on the international musical scene.

In 1996, Jed Distler, reviewing the first concert devoted solely to Viñao's compositions (Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall) found that “there is nothing generic about this highly gifted composer, whose music, whichever way it turns, is always vibrant and alive.” A commercial recording of the concert followed. Since then, the unfolding of long, vocally-conceived lines, as well as the concept of “reinterpretation” (the recontextualization of past narratives), have been integral to Viñao's output. An example of these trends can be found in Arcanum (1996), an hour-long vocal cycle. More recent works include Saga (2003), an evening-length piece for large chamber ensemble and soloists, written for the Composer Portrait Series at Miller Theater in New York, and The Loss and the Silence (2004), commissioned by the Juilliard School for its centennial and premiered by the Juilliard String Quartet. In addition to his work as a composer, Ezequiel Viñao has also served as a consultant for Nonesuch's best-selling recordings of Gershwin's piano rolls.

About the poetry of this work:

The Wanderer is set to poetry from the Exeter Book, originally in Anglo-Saxon, and translated by the composer into English for this composition. The Exeter Book was given to the library of Exeter Cathedral by its first bishop, Leofric, who died in 1072. The poetry in the Exeter Book (which also contains The Seafarer, Widsith, The Wife's Lament, and a collection of riddles) is perhaps the largest collection of Old English literature we have. It appears to have been copied by a single scribe, probably in the late 10th century, though The Wanderer is possibly much older, perhaps dating to the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon tribes to Christianity, which began around 600 A.D.

The poem is a commentary on war, loss, death, destruction, mortality, and the temporal nature of our lives. However, despite the verses’ many glum descriptions, the narrator also expresses great tenderness; he also provides moments of reflection that range from the poignant to the truly profound. The narrator is clearly struggling with the need to belong to a wider social network, while balancing that need with his ongoing awareness that a man of high principle cannot simply ally himself with a lord of shabby human qualities. The narrator suggests that it is better to remain in proud exile than to be allied with those of questionable or corrupt motives. In this sense the piece is also an extended meditation on the moral ambiguity of war in general, and a commentary in particular on our current world military and political scene.

About the music of this work:

The Wanderer has been much influenced by the superb professional recordings of medieval and Renaissance music created during the past generation, especially those by British groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble and Gothic Voices. Those ensembles’ strengths have included an emphasis on “just intonation,” where the singers concentrate on singing harmonies in keeping with the physics of the overtone series (as compared to tempered piano intervals) and even Pythagorean tuning. Their recordings have brought to modern audiences the harmonies and rhythms of music written between 500 and 800 years ago, albeit inevitably filtered through modern sensibilities and aesthetics.

Viñao’s work here springs from a foundation of melody—sometimes soloistic, as at the opening, sometimes in overlapping melodies, weaving in and out of prominence—over harmonic underpinnings that evoke the “drones” of open fifths or octaves common to medieval-music recordings, notably those of songs by Hildegard of Bingen. In great contrast to the simpler medieval works, however, harmonies in The Wanderer often are based on diminished or augmented triads, or chromatically-inflected harmonies that rarely settle into the simpler intervals, all of which can sound dissonant. When more open harmonies such as pure fifths or octaves do occur, then, they provide a great sense of repose.

The sense of using dissonance and consonance as “pure color” mentioned above certainly holds true in this work. Virtually nowhere in this piece is there anything that feels like standard harmonic language, whether medieval-sounding or from later periods. Rarely will one hear even the simple resolution of a two-voice suspension or even a standard 14th-century candential formula. Harmonies in The Wanderer lead one to the other simply by assertion, often in third-relationships or simple shifts up or down by half step. Tonalities sometimes shift within a given “key area,” so that a passage that feels like it is in G can shift from G minor to G major and sometimes both at the same time.

There is a payoff to Viñao’s working method. When the composer does judiciously use more conventional harmonic language (even in medieval terms), it is with a purpose. Because he does this at points in the text that are particularly compelling or dramatic, the power and emotional force of such moments is far beyond what would normally ever occur in a piece of medieval polyphony, and it suddenly becomes completely relevant in the moment. The result is music that alternates between the hypnotic and the heart-wrenching, between that of a static worldview and the messiness of contemporary reality, between the sound-worlds of prior centuries and the flexibility that our own musical era allows and even demands.

The work is approximately 30 minutes in length.

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Astor Piazzolla, arr. Javier Zentner: Milonga del Ángel

Astor Piazzolla is considered the most important tango composer of the second half of the twentieth century. Piazzolla’s output is considered nuevo tango, since it fused the “strictly traditional” tango elements from Buenos Aires with the new elements of jazz and classical music to which he was exposed from a young age, after his family moved to New York City. He bought his first bandoneon for nineteen dollars and quickly became a virtuoso on that instrument; when he was 15, Carlos Gardel’s tango band offered Astor a spot on an upcoming tour, which Astor’s father would not permit. Gardel’s whole band soon perished in a plane crash, leading Astor to joke that he would have been playing the harp if his father had let him join the band.

Astor had talents as a composer as well, and after his family returned to Argentina he went to study with Ginastera in the 1940s at the urging of Arthur Rubinstein. This study led to a scholarship with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, where the famous conversation of 1953 took place that would change Piazzolla’s life:

I showed her my kilos of symphonies and sonatas. She started to read them and suddenly came out with a horrible sentence: “It's very well written.”... After a long while, she said: “Here you are like Stravinsky, like Bartók, like Ravel, but you know what happens? I can't find Piazzolla in this.”....I was very ashamed to tell her that I was a tango musician....And I didn't want to tell her that I was a bandoneon player, because I thought, “Then she will throw me from the fourth floor.” Finally, I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: “You idiot, that's Piazzolla!” And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds.

Returning to Buenos Aires, Piazzolla created his landmark nuevo tango, though he encountered violent resistance from purists; later in his career he met with virtually universal acclaim.

The milonga is typically a rather extroverted dance, but, as Daniel Noce has explained to us, in Piazzolla’s hands the Milonga del Ángel becomes a languid tango too. This a cappella rendition is by Javier Zentner, a renowned composer and orchestrator from Buenos Aires, who has sung with many of the top groups in Argentina and founded the Agrupación Vocal Croma; he has straddled both academic and popular music and has a deft feel for genre.


Alberto Ginastera: Lamentations of Jeremiah

One of the most important composers of classical music in Latin America of any period, Ginastera graduated from the conservatory in Buenos Aires in 1938, writing a choral setting of Psalm 150. Though invited to the USA for a Guggenheim fellowship in 1942, war conditions prevented the trip. Relieved of his post as chair at the national military academy by the Perónists in 1945, he came to the USA in 1945-47, visiting universities and studying with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. Upon his return to Argentina, he co-founded the League of Composers and held various academic posts as the political winds allowed, traveling and composing widely. A visit to Washington, D.C. in 1958 to hear the Juilliard Quartet play his Second Quartet secured his international reputation. From 1964 onward he pursued grand opera with success. He returned to the USA in 1968, moved to Europe in 1970, and died in Geneva.

Ginastera wrote these Lamentations while he was in the USA in 1946. Emotionally expressive, powerful pieces, they bring on comparisons to works of other composers like Stravinsky, Bartók, or Vagn Holmboe of Denmark. Audiences familiar with Copland’s major work In the Beginning might notice some echoes of overall feel here, since the two works were being written around the same time and a cappella works from either composer are rare. Ginastera’s vocal lines are well crafted, his harmony flexibly diatonic, his rhythmic sense keen.

Notably, Ginastera does not set these Bible verses in order. In fact, this disorder in the first and third movements, to evoke specific meanings, may be a clue that we are to read in them the despair and anger of the political exile. The first movement (Lamentations 1:12, 20, 16; 3:66) takes words that, in English, are probably best known from Handel’s Messiah: “behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” While Handel’s aria is more plaintive, Ginastera’s song is furious; no room for passive suffering here. The second movement (Lamentations 3: 1-2,4,6,8,18) is in stile antico. Ginastera specified the half note as the pulse, so the music actually looks like Renaissance music on the page. His counterpoint is careful, more dramatic than Palestrina, evocative of Lasso’s polyphony. The final movement (Lamentations 5:1, 21, 19) moves from a relaxed, contemplative mood to a more intense close.

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Carlos Guastavino: Se Equivocó la Paloma (The Dove Was Wrong)

One of Guastavino’s most famous songs, dating originally from 1941 in a version for solo voice and piano, this is a setting of Rafael Alberti’s beloved poem. The song has been well received in many forms and recorded by Elly Ameling and Jose Carreras, among others; the 1969 recorded version by the Catalán singer Joan Manuel Serrat ensured the song’s place in the wider culture. The poem takes several wry and touching turns, in keeping with Guastavino’s excellent taste in poetry.

* * * * * * *

Trad., arr. Oscar Escalada: Mudanzas (Variations on the Malambo)

The malambo is one of the great dance forms of Argentina, believed to have evolved on the plains (pampas) around the year 1600 as a response to the isolation that the gauchos found there. Malambo is traditionally a male-only dance, with music that typically has no lyrics. There are northern and southern variations to malambo, unlike tango whose evolution has been restricted to Buenos Aires

Most of the time, malambo is performed as competition. The dance itself is characterized by one dancer performing a series of foot movements (mudanzas) in a very small area. Audience members familiar with the pyrotechnics of Irish dancing—think Michael Flatley—will grasp the concept readily. While these taps against the floor are minor complements to many other dance forms, in malambo they are the dance itself.

Each mudanza completes a unique cycle or figure, which one dancer creates or “draws,” and which the other dancer must replicate. The dance is over when one of the dancers either cannot imitate the mudanza just done by the other or cannot think of a new one.

* * * * * * *

Osvaldo Golijov: Coral del Arrecife (Chorale of the Reef)

Currently Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Osvaldo Golijov grew up in an Eastern European Jewish household in La Plata, Argentina. Golijov was raised surrounded by chamber classical music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla. After studying piano at the local conservatory and composition with Gerardo Gandini he moved to Israel in 1983, where he studied at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy. Upon moving to the United States in 1986, Golijov earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and was a fellow at Tanglewood.

The Kronos Quartet released three recordings featuring their collaborations with Golijov, which began in the 1990s: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, as well as Caravan and Nuevo. Kronos also expanded Golijov’s musical family through collaborations. For the past seven years Golijov has been inspired by the voice of Dawn Upshaw, for whom he composed several works, including the opera Ainadamar, to be presented by Lyric Opera in 2007-08. In 2000, the premiere of Golijov's St. Mark Passion took the music world by storm. The CD of the premiere of this work received Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations in 2002. The recording of Ayre, featuring The Andalucian Dogs and Dawn Upshaw, was nominated for a Grammy in 2005. Deutsche Grammophon’s 2006 recording of Ainadamar earned two Grammy awards: for best opera recording, and best contemporary composition.

Golijov has received numerous commissions from major ensembles and institutions in the U.S. and Europe. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Golijov is an Associate Professor at College of the Holy Cross, where he has taught since 1991, and is also on the faculty of the Boston Conservatory. Recently completed projects include Azul, a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony, and the composition of the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s upcoming film Youth Without Youth.

“Coral del Arrecife” is the final (and the only a cappella) movement from Golijov’s work Oceana, a major work for vocalist, boy soprano, chorus, and orchestra. It was premiered in 1996 at the Oregon Bach Festival (OBF) under Maria Guinand and will be released on DG as a compact disc this year. The work was one of four commissioned for the 1996 OBF with the intent that they evoke the spirit of J. S. Bach. Golijov drew on the poetry of Pablo Neruda (from Chile), who published “Oceana” in his 1961 Cantos Ceremoniales. The composer wrote: “My aim in Oceana was the transmutation of passion into geometry. This is, in my mind, the clue to both Bach's and Neruda's work. ...[One hopes that the emotion evoked by the work] is the emotion of hearing order, inevitable and full of light: every note in its place, as in Bach, every word in its place, as in Neruda.”

As in the opening movement, where the soloist intones the name Oceana—the goddess of the ocean—the chorus here intones her name, in overlapping waves created by the double-choir formation. The voices recall, as the composer notes, “ancient images of reefs and shells and seafarers”. The voices dissolve in echoes of forgotten memory, with superbly crafted dynamics that truly evoke the physical sensation of ocean waves, with swells and crests and ebbs and flows.

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Astor Piazzolla, arr. Oscar Escalada: Verano Porteño

Of all the tango songs, this one probably evokes the genre more readily than any other. The song is from what might be called the “Four Seasons” of tango, Piazzolla’s set of four tunes evoking each time of year. The adjective porteño refers to Buenos Aires, so that Verano Porteño means “summer of Buenos Aires.” Oscar Escalada’s skillful a cappella arrangement captures Piazzolla’s idiomatic writing for bandoneon, violin, and bass, shared among the setting’s five voice parts.