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Latin Accents at Shalin Liu


With patrons in yellow slickers, a sky occulted by fog, the surf pounding in a strong wind, and the air chilled, the atmospherics for the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Sunday bespoke Sea Drift or Peter Grimes rather than sultry South American zephyrs, but that’s what imaginations are for. And the Cuarteto Latinoamericano produced ample sustenance for that imaginative escape in its music from south (sometimes very far south) of the border.

The quartet consists of the Bitrán brothers (Saúl and Arón, violins, and Alvaro, cello) and Javier Montiel, viola; they are probably the best known quartet in Latin America, having formed 30 years ago in Mexico and establishing strong connections throughout the Western Hemisphere (they were in residence for many years at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh) and through global touring. We have known them only through their recordings, chiefly of the complete quartets (17 in all) of Villa-Lobos, though their 2012 CD of the two quartets of Francisco Mignone won that year’s Latin Grammy.

Their intellectually challenging and sensually seductive offering Sunday afternoon began with the second Mignone quartet, dating from 1957, its author perhaps the second most famous Brazilian composer (after Villa-Lobos). A decade younger than the latter, Mignone’s music for most of his career, despite extensive training in his father’s native Italy, drank from the same well as his older colleague. The Quartet No. 2 opened with a silky passage in unison but—in a pattern that pervaded all the works on the program—shifted quickly among many textures, in harmony, sonority, tempo and especially articulation. Whether CL was telling its audience about their personal tastes or about the characteristics of Latin American music generally we’re not sure, but by the end of the concert the listener would be well exposed to dramatic portimenti and glissandi, ethereal harmonics, and many other brilliant colors of string sound production. Meanwhile the Mignon piece offered many charms, including a mostly sultry slow movement featuring eloquent solos by Alvaro (it’s not the BMInt house style, but we’ll refer to the Bitrán brothers by first name for convenience) and a folk-like finale of mercurial moods with delicious solos for Saúl and Montiel.

The only Mexican works on the menu followed, two little pieces by Manuel Ponce from 1912 and 1913, Estrellita and Gavota, the former originally for voice and piano and the latter for piano, both arranged for quartet by Alvaro. Estrellita was for many years Ponce’s calling card, so to speak, though today he is probably best remembered for his Concierto del Sur for guitar. These are curious pieces—Estrellita offers only the merest hints of its national origin and the gavotte seemed clearly intended for the crowned heads of Europe. Their combined Viennese and Paderewskian perfume is emphasized in Alvaro’s elegant and slightly schmaltzy arrangements, especially in the solos for Saúl in Estrellita.

The first half of this musically packed session (the quartet essentially forwent stage exits after the Mignone other than at intermission) ended with the Villa-Lobos Quartet No. 5 (1931). Villa-Lobos started writing quartets in 1914 and continued virtually to his death in 1959, but there was a 14-year gap between numbers 4 and 5. This and number 6 are probably the two most demotic of Villa-Lobos’s quartet oeuvre, with swaying rhythms in the first movement and spicy folclórico in the finale, the whole being somewhat formally wayward (formal coherence was never Villa-Lobos’s long suit). The CL seemed to take a few seconds to get itself straightened out in the beginning, with Saúl adjusting his harmonics and Alvaro his intonation, but once that was over all was perfect. Montiel’s portamento in the opening movement was scrumptious. The “anguished” adagio was a showpiece of technique: harmonics, sul ponticello, misterioso tremolos, and a pulsing, complex rhythm with moments of introspection, coming to a sober end. The scherzo had everything one loves about Villa-Lobos: great harmonies, great chord changes and spacing, rich sonorities, mood changes, and melodies redolent of hibiscus. The extended harmonics of the brief but brilliant finale were a delight: it would be a challenge for other quartets to take on this repertoire as well, but more of them should try.

The second half opened with Four, for Tango (1987) by who else, Astor Piazzolla, a work written in a flash for the Kronos Quartet. It opens with swagger and panache and great quick glissandi, followed by gritty sul ponticello scrapings. Piazzolla was to tango what Mozart was to the minuet: he wrote fabulous pieces to listen to, but one wouldn’t want to try dancing to them. As with most of his mature Nuevo Tango works, this is an abstraction of a dance, with its roots most clearly audible in the brief central section. The CL dug into it and produced a ferocious, dark beauty.

Cuarteto Latinoamericano (file photo)
Cuarteto Latinoamericano (file photo)

The closing work was another Argentinian piece, by Piazzolla’s teacher Alberto Ginastera. Written in 1958 (and played in his 1968 revision), the Quartet No. 2 found Ginastera in a transition period, not fully out of his nationalist beginnings but not yet fully into his serialist endings. In fact, it owes much of its inspiration to later Bartók, in its ogival five-movement structure, its extended string technique, and its harmonically crunchy take on folk-like elements (in places it would be impossible to know whether a particular passage was meant to be Argentine or Hungarian). The CL was flawless in its opening unison and the execution of all the technical effects, always well integrated into the musical fabric. Although the first movement is marked “allegro rustico,” anything rustic about it had less to do with Brueghel’s peasants than with “No Country for Old Men.” It was grim. The second movement was Ginastera’s version of a Bartók night piece, with portamento slides, complex counterpoint and the dissonant interweaving of lines with homophonic punctuation for climaxes. One might usefully contrast this “internationalized” style with that of Ponce forty years earlier. The third movement, marked “presto magico” is less magic than spooky: all muted, much misterioso tremolo, harmonics and fleeting pizzicato. The fourth movement opens with a cadenza-like passage for violin, punctuated by chords, which passes then to the cello, and after a frenetic development hands off to the viola, with an ambiguous, opaque ending. Saúl, Alvaro and Montiel were all superb in their turns. The finale, marked furioso, lived up to its billing without being brusque, with attempts at a folk-like melody and a strong sense of harmonic movement.

The CL sent the capacity audience home with “Volver” by Carlos Gardel, an elegant and sweet taste of the viejo tango from which Piazzolla drew new inspiration.

And, since we (among others) have made an issue of the acoustical problems some performers (mainly violinists) have faced in the Shalin Liu hall, it should be noted that the sonic balance of the CL was perfect throughout the concert. 

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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