Voces latinas

April 2008

Program Notes

VOCES SAGRADAS (Sacred voices)

 Salmo 150

Ernani Aguiar (b. 1949)

 Ave Maria

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999)

 Lamentations of Jeremiah: Lectio I

Tomás Luís de Victoria (c. 1548-1611)


 Una matica de ruda

Sephardic melody, arr. J. Miller

 Falai meus olhos

Anonymous 16th-c. Portuguese/Galician

VOCES QUE BAILAN 1 (Dancing voices 1)

 Mata del ánima sola

Antonio Estévez (1916-1988)

 Verano Porteño

Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), arr. Oscar Escalada


 Siete Haiku

Jorge Córdoba (b. 1953)


Tania León (b. 1943)

    I. Visión (Vision)


    II. Arrullo Diurno (Morning Lullaby)

    III. De la Espiral (Of the Helix)

VOCES QUE BAILAN 2 (Dancing Voices 2)

 Son de la loma  

M. Matamoros (1894-1971) arr. J. Castillo


Oscar Escalada (b. 1956)


VOCES SÉRIAS (Serious voices)

 O Vos Omnes   

Pablo Casals (1876-1973)

VOCES FESTIVAS (Festive voices)

 Las Manañitas

trad. Mexican, arr. Ramón Noble

 La Bamba

arr. Deke Sharon

VOCES DE AMOR (Voices of love)

 Corazón coraza                

Beatríz Corona (b. 1962)

 Te quiero           

Alberto Favero (b. 1944)

VOCES QUE BAILAN 3 (Dancing voices 3)             

 Muié rendêra

C.A. Pinto Fonseca (b. 1933)

 ¿Dónde está la Má Teodora?

Joaquín Nin-Culmell (1908-2004)

 Encore: Salseo

Oscar Galián (Venezuela)



Bienvenidos! We’re glad that you’re here for Voces latinas. Please make yourself comfortable in the concert hall and settle in for a remarkable journey of sounds and musical colors. If this is your first time hearing us, welcome. If you’re back for more, you’re about to hear music unlike any that Chicago a cappella has sung thus far in our fifteen seasons. We’re excited to bring this music to you today.

This program represents a new repertoire area for Chicago a cappella. Any time when we venture “whole-hog” into a new domain of music, there are surprises. I deliberately went somewhat out of my comfort zone on this concert, partly because I knew that we were going to program the superb new piece, Estampas, by Tania León, and I felt a need to create a suitable program to surround it. A composer of truly international stature, Tania León has cast a wide stylistic net with the three movements of Estampas, bridging past and present with vibrant contemporary Cuban poetry and exhilarating new music. We are honored that Ms. León accepted the commission for this work. (It is also gratifying to be able to report that, from the first rehearsal, the singers of Chicago a cappella were heard to murmur things like “This is really cool.”)

Fortunately, I trust Music Director Patrick Sinozich to take my initial repertoire ideas and turn them into something truly masterful on the stage. It has been a pleasant journey already, finding music from so many countries to the south and east of the USA. In addition to the many Cuban connections on the program, we also have music from Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Spain, Portugal, and Argentina. The series published by earthsongs in Oregon, called Música de Latinoamérica, has made several of these works available outside their countries of origin for the first time; many of these are now famous worldwide. We are grateful to the editors there, as well as Wayland Rogers of North Park University here in Chicago, for exposing us to the wonders of this repertoire.

In addition to the music itself, it has been a splendid journey of discovering new texts. As a composer myself, I always start with the text. (If the poem doesn’t unlock my heart, no music happens.) My love for Spanish poetry began a number of years ago, when I first bought a copy of a little book called The Captain’s Verses by Pablo Neruda. From there I moved into the Cien sonetas de amor (100 Love Sonnets) in the masterful translation by Stephen Tapscott; for their uniformly high quality, seriousness, and cumulative power, I have come to love Neruda’s love sonnets even more than those of Shakespeare. For this program, the work of Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti has been a new revelation, and of course the three living Cuban women whose verse gave rise to Estampas create an earthy shimmer in much the same way that the Siete Haiku of Jorge Córdoba do.

The songs of Voces latinas are characterized in no small way by their characteristic rhythms. The forms known as joropo, son, candomblé, and tango all appear here. I’m not proud of the fact that the average citizen south of the Rio Grande has a much more sophisticated rhythmic vocabulary than your typical North American, but that just means that we folks up here have something to learn. So get your feet ready to move, slip into some serious syncopation, and get ready for a lot of fun. Muchas gracias for coming, please visit with us after the concert, and enjoy the show.

            —Jonathan Miller


VOCES SAGRADAS (Sacred voices)

Ernani Aguiar: Salmo 150

Aguiar is an important living Brazilian composer, well known for instrumental as well as choral pieces. He also has worked as a historian on editing 18th-century music of the Minas Gerais school. Like many of his works, the Salmo 150 has great rhythmic intensity and quick, expressive drive.

Joaquín Rodrigo: Ave Maria

Blinded at the age of three, Rodrigo steered early in life toward a music career, with remarkable results. His studies in Paris with Paul Dukas led to the 1940 premiere of his first concerto for guitar and orchestra, a work which secured his fame. Decorated with honors throughout his life, Rodrigo, though a Spaniard, composed music that bears a French influence, notably with shades of Ravel and Stravinsky. This Ave Maria is the composer’s own rescoring (1954) of a work originally written for soprano solo and harmonium (a keyboard instrument). The spare texture and harmonic language are reminiscent also of Poulenc. In the choral setting, Rodrigo provides a simple, effective declamation of the text, with echoes between the voice parts at several poignant places.

Tomás Luís de Victoria: from Lamentations of Jeremiah: Lectio I (Lesson One)

Less well-known than Palestrina, Victoria was the preeminent Spanish musician of the High Renaissance in western Europe. Victoria was born in Spain and studied during his twenties in Rome, where he may have been a pupil of Palestrina; the older master’s post at the Collegium Romanum went to Victoria in 1571. Victoria was among the leaders of Roman church music until 1585, when he returned to Spain for the remainder of his career.

Victoria’s style is careful in some respects, reflecting Palestrina’s influence. However, the Spaniard’s polyphony has emotional power and a mystical sense far beyond Palestrina’s limited expressiveness. The Lamentations of Jeremiah are among Victoria’s masterpieces, blending conservative dissonance treatment with the sensibilities of a composer who never forgot that his sacred texts were about deep faith.

Today’s program includes the first main section (“Lesson One”) from the Holy Thursday Lamentations. The sections marked “Aleph” and “Beth” refer to the Hebrew letters indicating the verse of the Biblical book (i.e., Aleph = verse 1; Beth = verse 2). The thrilling refrain at “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” adds a fifth voice to the texture, making for an unforgettable finish.

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Sephardic (medieval Spanish-Jewish) melody, arr. Jonathan Miller: Una matica de ruda

Before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Spain enjoyed centuries of convivencia—a flourishing, collaborative culture combining Catholics, Muslims, and Jews. The Jews prospered and had full participation in Spanish society, occupying positions of esteem and influence. The language they spoke was “Ladino,” a combination of Spanish and other words in much the same way that Yiddish is based on German.

This song is one of the many surviving love-songs from the Sephardic/Ladino tradition. Like most of those, it covers secular topics with an earthy sensibility and flowing melodies that readily show Mediterranean roots. Jonathan Miller has given the original solo melody a harmonic and rhythmic backdrop, first heard on Chicago a cappella’s concert called “Christians and Jews in the Renaissance” from the ensemble’s first years.

Anon. Portuguese-Galician villancico, 16th-century: Falai meus olhos

Music has a way of turning up in strange and unexpected places sometimes. This love song comes from a manuscript which, while its musical origins are from Portugal, ended up in the college town of Uppsala in Sweden! The love song is tender and strong at the same time. Ideas about performing it have evolved over the past few decades. The early King’s Singers recording rendered the tune like a slow, polyphonic motet, while more recent interpretations have kept the feel and tempo more typical of other villancicos, with a quick pulse and added urgency to go with the words.

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VOCES QUE BAILAN 1 (Dancing voices 1)

Antonio Estévez: Mata del ánima sola (Tree of the lonely soul)

The Venezuelan plains (llanos) are featured in the poetry of Alberto Alvero Torrealba, the country’s most famous poet of the last century. His lyrics always focus on the people and traditions of his country, including in this song the dance called the joropo. The tenor solo in this song represents the voice of the llaneros (men of the plains), while the choir parts imitate the instruments that play the joropo: the cuatro (a small 4-stringed guitar) in the inner voices, the low bordones guitar, and the diatonic harp in the sopranos. The musician Antonio Estévez was a leader of the second important generation of Venezuelan composers; his most famous work is a co-creation with Torrealba, the Cantata Criolla.

Astor Piazzolla, arr. Oscar Escalada: Verano porteño

The most important tango composer of all, Piazzolla started playing the bandoneon—the primary melody instrument of traditional Argentine tango—as a youth, when his family lived in New York City. His career took him into composition, even as far as studying with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Afraid that she would mock him if she learned that he was “just a bandoneon player,” she instead told Piazzolla to stop pretending to be anything but himself. He never looked back: he returned to Buenos Aires, burned all his “classical” compositions, and composed his new tango style to international acclaim.

This song comes from Piazzolla’s suite about the seasons in his city. Verano porteño means “summer of Buenos Aires.” Oscar Escalada is an important music educator and choral arranger at the University of La Plata, and he has skillfully rescored this famous tango composition for a cappella voices, singing neutral syllables without actual words.

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Jorge Córdoba Valencia: Siete Haiku (Seven Haiku)

Composer and conductor Jorge Córdoba did most of his musical studies at Mexico City’s National Conservatory, with later work in Composition and Direction in Spain, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, the U.S., and Hungary. He has received various awards, including the Bartók Recognition Award and the Kodaly Medal (both issued by the Hungarian government) and First Place honors in the 4th and 5th annual National Choral Composition Contests (in 2003 and 2005, respectively), as well as First Place in the 7th annual National Composition Contests for Children’s Choruses, held in 2006. He has participated in the World Music Days celebrated in Romania (1999), Ljubljana, Slovenia (2003), Croatia (2005), and Hong Kong (2007).

In 2002, his work The Divine Image was commissioned for, and performed at, the 6th World Symposium of Choral Music, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2006, he obtained a residency in the Visby International Composers’ Center in Gottland, Sweden, and in October of that same year he attended the 21st Annual Festival of Havana, Cuba, as a conductor, composer, and lecturer. Since 2001, Jorge Córdoba has coordinated and directed the radio program entitled Horizontes de Nuestra Música (Horizons of Our Music), transmitted in Mexico by the Opus 94 Radio Station.

Córdoba’s music gained notice in the USA in part because of this piece, which appears on the remarkable 2001 album of Latin American choral music by the Gregg Smith Singers. Setting poetry by five of the great haiku poets, Córdoba manages in this music to do what the best haiku also do: to evoke the universal and timeless with concrete images. The cycle possesses great subtlety and power, nuance and intensity.

Tania León: Estampas (world premiere, commissioned by Chicago a cappella)

Born in Cuba and based in New York, Tania León has distinguished herself in genres from orchestral music to opera, ballet scores and film projects; she has written choral music for Chanticleer, the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, and many other ensembles. Her music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, the Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival, and on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow series. She has received awards for her compositions from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fund, ASCAP and the Koussevitzky Foundation, among others. From 1993 to 1997 she was New Music Advisor to Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, and she has appeared as guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic, L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Santa Cecilia Orchestra (Rome), and the Gewaundhausorchester (Leipzig), among many others. León’s opera Scourge of Hyacinths was given to great acclaim at the Grand Théâtre de Genève (Switzerland), and Dawn Upshaw recorded an aria from the opera on her CD The World So Wide. León has been Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University, Visiting Professor at Yale University, the University of Michigan and the Musikschule in Hamburg. She has taught at Brooklyn College since 1985, and in 2006 she was named Distinguished Professor of the City University of New York.

The Estampas cycle, created for our 15th Anniversary Commissioning Series, sets three poems, each by a living Cuban woman poet. The rhythmic and harmonic language evokes the sounds and colors of the entire Latinoamericano region. The cycle is conceived as a fast-slow-fast contrast of tempo, with the middle section being a lullaby while the outer movements are more extroverted.

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VOCES QUE BAILAN 2 (Dancing voices 2)

Miguel Matamoros, arr. José Castillo: Son de la loma

This infectious tune was written by a member of the Trio Matamoros, Miguel Matamoros, who was born in the city of Santiago de Cuba. The words are full of repetition, alliteration, overlapping ideas, and features that make the song feel slightly off-kilter, even when it’s all in order. The song is performed here in an a cappella setting, playful and a little suggestive of the fun to be had when one hangs out with singers. Did we say that we’ll be in the lobby after the show?

Oscar Escalada: Candomblé

Candomblé (also known as Macumba) is an Afro-American religion practiced chiefly in Brazil, though it also has adherents in adjacent countries. The religion came from Africa to Brazil, carried by African priests and worshipers who were brought as slaves between 1549 and 1888. The name Batuque is also used, especially from before the 19th century when Candomblé became more common. Both words are believed to derive from a Bantu-family language.

Although originally confined to the slave population, banned by the Catholic church, and even criminalized by some governments, Candomblé thrived for over four centuries, and expanded considerably after the end of slavery in late 1800s. It is now a major, established religion, with followers from all social classes and tens of thousands of temples. In recent surveys, about 2 million Brazilians (1.5% of the total population) have declared candomblé as their religion. However, in Brazilian culture, religions are not seen as mutually exclusive, and thus many people of other faiths participate in candomblé rituals regularly or occasionally. Candomblé deities, rituals, and holidays are now an integral part of Brazilian folklore.

Oscar Escalada has written here a candomblé-style composition which has much in common with the “ring shout” traditional to many African cultures and carried on by the slave population of the American South. One of the phrases in the tenor line shows Catholic influence (Misericordia Señor = “Lord, have mercy”), but most of the other words are either nonsense or refer to beating of the conga drum. The music is written in a rhythm very close to the tango and the habanera. Starting off slowly, the rhythm and tempo lend themselves to a trance-like repetition of the basic ideas, and only when that feeling is settled does the music begin to pulse and accelerate to the point of ecstatic release.


VOCES SÉRIAS (Serious voices)

Pablo Casals: O vos omnes

Known primarily as a cellist, whose fame began in the late 1890s with performances for the Queen of Spain in Madrid and for Queen Victoria in Paris, Casals was also a composer with a strong personal style. This deeply sad, yearning setting of Jeremiah’s words (usually sung during Holy Week) feature split parts in the men’s voices and a rich, thick texture.

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VOCES FESTIVAS (Festive voices)

Trad. Mexican, arr. Ramón Noble: Las Mañanitas

In Mexico, this tune is traditionally sung on birthdays and anniversaries and other festive occasions. Versions of the song have been collected at many locations in both Mexico and New Mexico. The song lyrics are sweet and tender; they even seem to have a slight reference to the Biblical love-lyrics in the Song of Songs, where in the final chapter the poet says, “Arise, my love; let us go into the garden.” In any event, the famous arranger and organist Ramón Noble (of the rollicking choral La cucaracha arrangement) has created a lovely, peaceful setting for this song, including an effective bridge, scored for men’s voices, leading into the final phrases.

Veracruzan song, arr. Deke Sharon: La bamba

We turn for a little more fun to the shores of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico south of Tampico. This tune, reportedly a centuries-old huapango song from Veracruz, came to the attention of Richie Valens (born Richard Steve Valenzuela), who recorded it in October 1958 as the B-side to the ballad “Donna” the year before he perished in a plane crash with Buddy Holly. The song is from the son tradition and includes nonsense syllables, sometimes improvised on the spot by the cantador. The Latin band Los Lobos took this song to #1 after their movie soundtrack of “La Bamba” was released.

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VOCES DE AMOR (Voices of love)

Beatríz Corona: Corazón coraza (Heart armor)

One of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces to emerge in recent years, Corazón coraza comes from Cuba and was introduced to us by Wayland Rogers of North Park University. Beatríz Corona Rodríguez has written more than 200 choral works as well as film scores. She has been a lecturer in music in Sweden, Venezuela, and Argentina as well as her native Cuba. Her compositions include settings of Neruda, José Martí, Cesar Vallejo, and the exquisite poetry of Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti, whose poem is the basis for this song. The editor María Guinand notes that “Benedetti, whose works include a vast collection of poems, novels, and tales, always writes in a very clear and expressive manner. His solidarity with the Latin American people and the sincerity with which he expresses the social, political, and economic problems of the continent have won him world-wide recognition.” The translation given here is by Maria Suarez, board member of Chicago a cappella.

Alberto Favero, arr. Liliana Cangiano: Te quiero

Another poem of the Uruguayan master Mario Benedetti finds musical life in this setting by Alberto Favero, a popular-music composer from Argentina. This choral arrangement, like Kasar mie la gaji, is an international best-seller in the choral world, regularly appearing on repertoire lists for festivals and contests.

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VOCES QUE BAILAN 3 (Dancing voices 3)

C.A. Pinto Fonseca: Muié rendêra

Two of the most popular folk tunes from Northeast Brazil are combined in this arrangement by Carlos Alberto Pinto Fonseca: Olê, Muié Rendêra and É Lampa, é Lampa, é Lampeão. The composer’s most well-known work in the USA is his Missa Afro-Brasiliera (1976). Although Pinto Fonseca emphasizes the rhythmic aspect of the piece, his choral writing is very clear, which allows the listener to identify the two melodies very easily.

Joaquín Nin-Culmell: ¿Dónde está la Má Teodora?

Born in Berlin, Joaquín Nin-Culmell was the son of the Spanish pianist, composer and musicologist Joaquin Nin Castellanos and the Cuban singer Rosa Culmell Vaurigaud. He began his early musical education in Spain, continued in the United States, then in Paris at the Schola Cantorum and Paris Conservatory where he studied piano with Paul Braud, Alfred Cortot, Ricardo Vines and composition with Paul Dukas and Manuel de Falla. In 1940 he settled in the United States, teaching first at Williams College, then the University of California, where he was chairman and then professor of music until his retirement in 1974. He wrote a wide range of compositions for voice, piano, guitar, cello, chorus, chamber groups, orchestra, two ballets and an opera. His music has been recorded by various artists including Alicia de Larrocha, Elena Gragera and Maria Luisa Cantos. He also wrote the prefaces to the 4 volumes of Early Diaries by his sister, the writer Anais Nin.

In his Three Cuban Folk-Songs, Nin-Culmell captures the rhythmic and harmonic flavor of Cuba. This tune originated at least 150 years ago—perhaps even earlier. Indeed, there seems to be little doubt that an actual “Ma Teodora” lived in Cuba as early as 1540, namely Teodora Ginés, who with her sister Micaela settled in Santiago de Cuba, where they became renowned for their abilities on the bandola or banduria, a guitar-like instrument played with a pick. They managed to organize a great deal of instrumental music for the churches and festivals of the city. This fact goes a long way toward explaining the text, which talks about the lady “flick-flacking the strings.” While nobody has been able to give this specific tune any date earlier than the mid-19th century, it nevertheless carries a good bit of Cuban history. The song is typically sung with one singer playing the claves (a percussion instrument of two wooden sticks).

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Interview with Tania León

Acclaimed composer Tania León wrote an exciting new piece as the finale to Chicago a cappella's 15th Anniversary Commissioning Series.  Her Estampas was performed at the ensemble's recent concert, Voces latinas.

We caught up with Tania between her many engagements to find out more about the piece:

Tell me about the three-movement structure of Estampas.

All three poems are by Cuban-born women now living in the U.S., and the poetry definitely inspired this structure. I think of the piece as being three “snapshots,” just descriptions of a particular moment: looking at a landscape, a mother holding her child, really universal moments that are part of our human experience regardless of our culture or heritage.

I have previously written music set to poems by all three of these poets, and have known these women for a long time. In the previous piece, their work was mixed with that of other poets. I liked the idea of putting these three poets together, showing how different three points of view can be, even from people born in the same place.

Can you describe the sound that you had in mind when composing Estampas? Are there particular musical associations or connections to particular rhythms you're hoping to evoke?

There are Cuban overtones in the music, some are traditional sounds, some are derivatives of son. Son is the primary source of many forms of expressions in Cuba, and can be considered the “classical” expression of music of that culture. This influence also transcends Cuba to the rest of the Caribbean.

Can you talk a bit about writing for vocal ensemble? Is it more or less challenging than composing for symphonic forces, for example, or instrumental ensembles?

Not necessarily – when I want to write for any specific force in music, I get into that. In fact, before I begin, I listen to a lot of choral music – it doesn’t matter what style: early music, avant garde, even music of other cultures. My intention is to get closer to the power of the voice, whether I’m writing for a vocal soloist or an ensemble. I also love to connect with the sound of each specific ensemble. [Before undertaking a new commission] I usually ask for a recording, so I can get acquainted with the group's individual voice – each ensemble has its own voice. I try to work into the piece my understanding of what that sound means to me. [Before writing Estampas] I listened to two of Chicago a cappella’s CDs, and I was struck by the variety of music. It gave me the possibility to create whatever style I wanted to create.

What are you working on next?

Right after I leave Chicago, I travel to Beijing, China, to open an international congress of women composers with my piece Horizons. That piece just came out on a new CD called Singin' Sepia. After the congress, I stay in Beijing one more week to act as composer/conductor-in-residence at the Beijing Conservatory. In early May I’m conducting a concert of my own music at Symphony Space in Manhattan, and of course continuing my teaching in the graduate center at the City University of New York. I’m also working on a new ballet with a Brazilian company, which will premiere in spring 2009, a string quartet for the Emerson Quartet, and my first real band piece for the Harvard University Band.

VOCES DE AMOR (Voices of love)