Experiencing Villa-Lobos: Conference hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond VA.


A Report on the Conference by Lee Boyd

On Thursday March 27, 2008 an afternoon reception allowed participants and guests to get acquainted. A Brazilian voice and guitar duo played and sang choros, sambas, and bossa nova selections while people circulated through the rooms of a lovely old mansion.

In the evening the keynote address was given by Grayson Wagstaff, who detailed the immense influence brought to bear on the Library of Congress Music Division by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, promoting live performances, commissioning music, purchasing instruments and scores, and sponsoring publications. In particular, the complicated process by which a piece by Villa-Lobos was proposed, actually commissioned, and finally received was detailed.

Directly afterward, the opening chamber music concert presented 'Assobio a Jato' for flute and cello and 'Choros No. 2' for flute and clarinet: Kristin Kean, flute; Nathan Jasinski, cello; Roland Karnatz, clarinet. They had things perfectly in hand and accompanied Lisa Burr-Edwards, soprano, in 'Poema da Crianca e sua Mama', while Dmitri Shtemberg played the piano for her singing of some selections from 'Modinhas e Cancoes', all of which were performed beautifully and quite expressively with excellent Portuguese articulation. A very pleasurable opening of the concert and the conference.

After the intermission, the truly remarkable Sonia Rubinsky took over. First she played 'Lenda do Caboclo' and two pieces from 'Ciclo Brasileiro,' with unusually sensitive nuances. Then she closed the concert with 'Rudepoema'. This long and frequently very loud piece was meant to be a tribute to Arthur Rubinstein, but I never realized how exactly this had been realized by Villa-Lobos until I saw and heard Rubinsky perform it live.

She was identified as a child prodigy by Rubinstein himself, and he followed her musical education closely, while she must have had numerous opportunities to hear him perform. I also had three chances to hear and see him live in concert, so I was aware of his skillful technique in interpreting the music of Chopin, especially the Polonaises. He believed in fiery, loud as possible playing when the music called for it. He would bring his arms down onto the keys with all his body weight behind them, so that his torso would bounce up off his seat. Ms. Rubinsky did this several times, just as he used to do, and this happened at the climaxes of various sections of the piece which seemed to echo some of those very Polonaises.

A thrilling performance! The audience was very appreciative, would have gone wild if they hadn't had such good manners. One felt nothing could top that. A fitting end for the first day of this very exciting conference. But Ms. Rubinsky came back onto the stage and gave us an encore, the 'Choros No. 5', known as 'Alma Brasileira'. This short, saudades-saturated piece, was just as soft and lyrical as the previous piece had been lively and bombastic. I felt these exquisitely musical presenters had given us a lovely survey of some of the high points of the chamber music production of Villa-Lobos.

On Friday March 28, first thing in the morning, Rubinsky gave a master class with two Virginia Commonwealth piano students. The first student played the opening movement of 'Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4' and then Rubinsky went through several passages with him to explain how more subtle expression could be achieved. The next student played the 'Alma Brasileira', and Rubinsky showed how a few difficult passages could be successfully practiced, teaching her the technique of full body-weight attack by demonstrating how to maintain a balance-forward posture. While her teaching was kind and helpful to the students, it also revealed how carefully and insightfully she had pursued her own studies of the music of Villa-Lobos.

What followed this class was a full day's parade of five successive music presentations. as well as two simultaneous paper sessions. No single person could attend everything, even if meals were omitted - an unwise proceeding, given so many demanding activities. All the papers submitted are expected to be published by the Museu Villa-Lobos in Rio and will likely be online in a few months, so I won't cover them here, except to note that the audio-visual assistance provided by the university was as competent as could be desired and very friendly besides. A few scholars were not able to attend, since the Brazilian Studies Association also held its annual conference the same weekend; but their papers will surely be submitted to the Museu nevertheless. It should be noted that the eminent Villa-Lobos scholar, Jose Miguel Wisnick, author of 'Coro dos Contrarios', an analysis of the work of Villa-Lobos from the perspective of the Marxist aesthetician Theodor Adorno, presented the keynote speech at that other convention and is reported to have used many musical examples to illustrate his points. No doubt some of those examples were by Villa-Lobos.
Next, two simultanous concerts were presented by adult performers, presenting several very popular pieces - Bachianas Brasileira No. 4, Choros No. 5, and Five Guitar Preludes - as well as more rarely heard pieces, such as the 'Suite pour Chant et Violin and the Quintette en forme de Choros'. In the afternoon a concert by various student guitar ensembles was given, featuring guitarists from three different high schools in the region, showing how widespread across this area is the serious study of guitar by young people. There were three young soloists, who played their pieces as written, while the ensembles played arrangements by their teachers and others. I was particularly impressed by the discipline exhibited by these young artists, their composure, attention to tuning, and lively enhahement with their performance. I love to see performers of any age nodding their heads, moving their bodies with the music (but not tapping their feet, as no one did !). That concert was followed immediately by another concert, of vocal and choral music. I am nearly 70 and ran out of gas, but really regretted missing another chance to hear Edwards-Burrs sing again, as well as hearing the other performers, especially the VCU Women' Chorus. In the meantime simultaneous research paper sessions took place throughout the day.

On Friday evening, the VCU Synphony presented a concert with music by Villa-Lobos, but also by living composers, including the winning piece in the special competition for the Experiencing Villa-Lobos conference. This was a lively percussion ensemble piece with the music provided by xylophone & marimba, with a fascinating collection of non-pitched instruments. Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 followed, a beautiful piece of music played beautifully. This half of the concert was rounded off with the Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone, played by Albert Regni, principal saxophonist for the NY Philharmonic and NYC Ballet orchestra, as well as adjunct professor at VCU. His appearance was appreciated as soon as he walked onto the stage, when his grandson cried out, "My Nono, my Nono" (grandfather in Italian). He was immediately shushed, and grandfather and orchestra proceeded to give a nicely nuanced performance of one of Villa-Lobos's unique concertos, appreciated with a standing ovation by the audience.

After intermission the 'Sinfonietta No.1' showed another aspect of Villa's handling of orchestral instruments, and the program ended with a new piece by VCU professor Doug Richards, called 'Expansions on A Mare Encheu'. This large composition was also an expansion on the dimensions of sound of the standard orchestra. With a jazz orchestra added, as well as three choirs and piano, tenor saxophone. guitar, and trumpet soloists, this work was both introspective at times and joyously extroverted particularly in the finale, when it built to a very energetic climax that brought the audience to its feet. I believe Villa-Lobos would have enjoyed this whole concert and would have been ready with a big smile and a warm handshake for Prof. Richards backstage.

On Saturday March 29, I gave my talk at 9AM and was surprised to see so many students in the audience, which speaks well for the seriousness of the VCU music program. Many campuses are deserted at 9AM on Saturday mornings, while the students recover from Friday night. I showed both slides and video tape, and everything went smoothly. The talk following mine was full of new material for me, as many previous ones had been. Simultaneous presentations were given at another venue, but I hope to read them, with you, when the Villa-Lobos Museum makes them available.

At 11AM, one of the most interesting events of the whole conference took place. This was a Round Table discussion given by Dr. Rubinsky, Prof. Richards, and three members of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Luis Fernando Lopes was scheduled to attend but could not, so his place was taken by Javier Montiel. viola of the Cuarteto, while the other members were two of the Bitran brothers, the cellist Alvaro and the first violinist Aron. Some memorable remarks made by participants: Villa-Lobos quartets are not only harder to play, but are more profound and original music than the oft-performed and recorded Shostakovich quartets; that Latin American music is not performed in either Latin America or Europe and the USA and Canada mostly because of lack of money and political will, even though audiences are always very receptive when they get a chance to hear Villa-Lobos, Revueltas, Ginastera, and others. The audience had been invited to jump in with comments, and this was my turn. I remarked that my research had uncovered evidence that, while Villa-Lobos himself had been very active in promoting his music -- as all composers should be - even though he was repeatedly criticized for being a "publicity hound", much of the surge in performances and popularity in the USA of Latin American art, visual, musical, and literary, during the first decades after WWII was due to behind-the-scenes sponsorship by Nelson Rockefeller, who had both the money and political experience from before and during the Roosevelt years, and later, to "get things done." All agreed that those days will not come again, and it was up to this generation to find other ways to make this valuable art once again widely available, possibly through the formation of a committee or even a foundation.

There were two more concerts in the afternoon, as well as a master class given by the Cuarteto. The evening concert by the Cuarteto of Villa-Lobos Quartets 1, 2, and 7 was exquisitely performed, and also enlightening, due to the insightful rendering of Quartet No.7. In the morning one of the musicians had said this No.7 was the best of them all and was made up a succession of related ideas: their performance made this succession very clear and quite interesting. The Cuarteto's recording of the complete Villa-Lobos quartets was on sale in the lobby and sold out. At 10 PM the film 'Green Mansions' containing music by Villa-Lobos was shown. I didn't attend, since I have owned the videocassette for years. It is still available from Amazon.com and other online vendors. Warm congratulations are due to the Music Department of Virginia Commonwealth University and the guitar communities of this part of the country!

Lee Boyd, April 2008.