Ginastera Rising: Festival Miami to close with tribute to Argentinian composer

By Lawrence A. Johnson

One of the more heartening elements of Festival Miami is the exposure given to lesser-known music of the Americas, as well as the tradition of allowing Frost School of Music faculty to indulge their areas of expertise and specialist, often quirky, interests.

Those two elements will come together Sunday and Monday night with an intriguing two-night tribute to Alberto Ginastera, which will offer a virtual immersion into the Argentinian composer’s music.

 “Obviously, I’m partisan,” says Deborah Schwartz-Kates, chair of the Frost School’s musicology department and the driving force behind the event. “But I believe the best of his pieces can stand with the greatest works in their genre of all time.”

 A specialist in music of Argentina and Chile – and Ginastera in particular – Kates is currently writing two books on Ginastera. “I don’t think every single piece is a brilliant masterwork,” she says.  “Ultimately, it’s up to the public to decide. But I believe Ginastera has not been accorded the opportunity to have many of his works performed.  So I view my role as a scholar as being a champion and having his music become part of that conversation.”

 The triumvirate of leading Latin-American composers has stayed largely unchanged for decades: Alberto Ginastera, along with the Brazilian Hector Villa-Lobos and Carlos Chavez (though Silvestre Revueltas seems to have displaced him as the Mexican component).

  Yet for all his name recognition, Ginastera’s legacy rests today on a relative handful of works: the brilliant orchestral showpiece Variaciones concertante, the melodic Piano Sonata, the driving, dynamic Piano Concerto No. 1, and, to a lesser extent, the innovative first two string quartets.

 Yet Ginastera wrote confidently in all forms, including opera (the sex-and-violence-filled Bomarzo created a scandal), song,  orchestral, chamber and instrumental.  In many ways, he is the most intriguing of his South American contemporaries, with a style that matured quickly from early reliance on folkloric color to a distinctive synthesis of national sensibility and astringent mid-20th century modernism. 

 The two programs offer a bracing mix of Ginastera works, arranged chronologically by Kates to provide “a biographical tour of his life.”  Sunday’s night’s program will open with two early vocal works, the Cantos del Tucuman and Dos canciones, performed by soprano Virginia Correa Dupuy, followed by the String Quartet No. 1, the blazing First Piano Concerto (Luis Ascot, soloist)  No. 1, and his late Catalan-colored Glosses for Orchestra.  Monday will offer the Pampeanas No.  1 and 2 for violin and cello, the choral Hieremiae Prophetae Lamentationes, and the exotic Cantata para America magica , scored for soprano (Dupuy again) and 53 percussion instruments.

 Obviously, complex, extravagantly scored works like the cantata offer  musical and practical challenges for the musicians involved. Thomas Sleeper of the Frost School will be on the podium both nights, and while Ginastera’s  music is daunting  to perform, the conductor considers him one of the most unique composers of the 20th century.

 “There’s an incredible precision in the notation that’s necessary for the vision that he has,” says Sleeper. “Also the way he’s woven European tools and indigenous American folklore sounds into his own element. He’s like the first real world music guy and not in a gratuitous way.”

 One of the greatest challenges will be the balancing of soprano voice with the bestiary of exotic instruments in the fantastical cantata. “With 13 percussionists and three keyboardists, it’s a monster,” Sleeper says.  “There’s a lot going on. It’s a tradeoff trying to decide whether to allow the power of the music to sort of overcome her or to back it off and let her voice come through.”

 Also a challenge is hewing to Ginastera’s scrupulous dynamic markings and notations without sacrificing a sense of spontaneity and excitement. “In the cantata, there’s a lot of juxtaposition of very precise rhythms with aleatoric rhythms and  echoings of the soprano voice in the percussion. But you can be so precise in your notations and then miss the essence of the music. You have to get past his precision into the mysticism of the music.”

 Soprano Dupuy brings a natural affinity and passion for Ginastera’s music having been born in the Tucuman region that inspired his Op.4 songs.  “In the Cantos del Tucumán, Ginastera draws on a melodic tradition with an intonation used by someone from northern Argentina,” she writes in an email. “On the other hand, his later works, such as the cantata, have nothing whatsoever to do with this style.  It is completely the opposite.  The cantata uses an intense vocal treatment, with extremes of vocal register and wide-ranging leaps.”

The cantata with its intense vocalism and wild leaps and gesitsre extremes offers a real workout for the soloist. “The dynamics need to be carefully controlled so that the voice is not submerged by the huge mass of percussion instruments,” Dupuy stresses.  “Also, in the cantata, there are infinite details in notation, in which Ginastera attempts to notate the inflections characteristic of indigenous singing.  For the singer, the sense of these inflections need to be expressive in the indigenous manner, and not rendered in the standard classical manner. . . . He writes with such precision in order to make the result immensely free.”

 The New York-born musicologist spent a decade traveling the world to track down copies of these films and his scores, in many cases reconstructing them. “His film music creates a revision of our picture of many aspects of the composer that we simply haven’t known, It’s been a huge project but a really fun project. It’s a great job for a scholar—you get to watch movies while you’re doing your work.”

 For all her enthusiasm for Ginastera’s music, Kates is clear-eyed about the man himself.  Some of the composer’s difficulties were not his doing, both artistic and political —  including president Juan Peron famously sacking Ginastera from the national music conservatory (he was later reinstated). But Kates says the blame for the neglect of much of Ginastera’s music is largely the fault of the composer and his unrelenting perfectionism.

 “There were a lot of problems that he himself created,” says Kates.  “He was constantly withdrawing works from his output, revising them and then unsure about which revision he then wanted to publish.  So at the time he died his estate was left in a state of disarray, which meant his publisher and friends had no idea which version the composer preferred.  He didn’t want any works published until they achieved their ‘perfect’ form.”

 Fortunately with the work of the Frost School musicologist, musicians and publishers—Boosey and Hawkes will soon be publishing many overlooked Ginastera works for the first time—and events such as the Frost School’s mini-festival  wor is begining to spread about the extraordinary variety, depth, excitement and inventiventiveness of Alberto Ginastera’s music.

  “More than anyone, he was able to apply contemporary techniques with his sense of place in a way that speaks to the world at large,” says Kates.  “He really seems to have captured a distilled essence of Argentina as a country and its musical landscape and communicate that to a broad international audience.”

Ginastera Tribute at Festival Miami

8 p.m. Sunday: Cantos del Tucuman; Dos canciones; String Quartet No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 1; Glosses for Orchestra.

8 p.m. Monday: Pampeana No. 1 for violin; Pampeana No. 2 for cello; Hieremiae Prophetae Lamentationes for chorus; Cantata para America magica.

 Both concerts are at Gusman Concert Hall, 1314 Miller Drive, Coral Gables. $15-$60. 305-284-4940;

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One Response to “Ginastera Rising: Festival Miami to close with tribute to Argentinian composer”

  1. Posted Nov 04, 2008 at 12:05 pm by Sarah

    How can you not mention Aaron Ludwig and his poignant cello solo before Glosses?

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Fri Oct 31, 2008
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