Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Latin composers emerge in U.S. spotlight

List of important Latin-American classical composers

By Janelle Gelfand,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “Listen to some of these Latin-American composers and you're going to find treasures. Keep digging, just as you have done with the Europeans. I think we need to discover music that we didn't know before — new music, even if it's old,” says Uruguayan-American conductor Gisele Ben-Dor, writing recently in Symphony magazine.

        Here are some composers who have made important contributions to Latin-American classical music:

        Leo Brouwer (b. 1939) — The Cuban composer, conductor and guitar virtuoso is responsible for a growing body of music that expands the technical reach of the guitar — such as extreme ranges and dynamics, and creating percussive effects on the guitar with both hands. His music blends Afro-Cuban and folk ingredients, and his styles have ranged from avant-garde abstract works of the '60s to neo-romanticism.

        Daniel Catan (b. 1949) — Dr. Catan is one of a new generation of Mexican composers. He earned his doctorate in music from Princeton University, where Milton Babbitt was among his teachers. His opera, Florencia en el Amazonas (1996), commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, was the first opera in Spanish commissioned by an American opera company. He incorporates Afro-Caribbean popular music and Latin-American percussion in his music.

        Carlos Chavez (1899-1978) — The Mexican composer was most influential musician on the cultural life of Mexico in the mid-20th century. Besides composing, he was the first music director of Mexico's first symphony orchestra, where he led 82 premieres of works by Mexican composers. He made a careful study of Aztec music and native folk instruments, and wrote two Aztec ballets. Among his numerous works are seven symphonies, an opera and five ballets.

        Alberto Ginastera (1916-83) — He's been called the Bartok of the Pampas. The Argentinian composer is known for his strong use of musical folklore, but, like Stravinsky, his music spanned wide-ranging styles. By the time of his String Quartet No. 2 of 1958, he was embarking on a period of 12-tone experimentation.

        His early ballets are folk-inspired, lush and rhythmic. After the success of Panambi when he was still a student, Lincoln Kirstein of American Ballet Caravan commissioned Estancia (1941).

        His operas were highly acclaimed and controversial. Don Rodrigo (1964) inaugurated New York City Opera's theater at Lincoln Center to raves, and established him as a major opera composer. But a second opera, Bomarzo (1966-7), for the Opera Society of Washington “met with ebullient praise, but its explicit eroticism provoked heated controversy,” writes The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

        Mr. Ginastera had a close friendship with Aaron Copland, who invited him to study at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass., in 1946. Among Mr. Ginastera's students was tango master Astor Piazzolla.

        Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) — Mr. Golijov was born into an Eastern European Jewish home in La Plata, near Buenos Aires. He was influenced by his teacher Gerardo Gandini, a former student of Mr. Ginastera as well as by the tangos of Mr. Piazzolla. After studies in Israel, Mr. Golijov earned a doctorate in 1986 at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with George Crumb. In 1990, he met the Kronos Quartet at Tanglewood Music Center, and began an artistic relationship with the group.

        His output is wide-ranging, including the film score to the Sally Potter film, The Man Who Cried. In 2000, he was commissioned to write a Passion for the 250th anniversary of Bach's death. The live recording of his epic La Pasion Segun San Marcos (St. Mark Passion) has been nominated for Grammy and Latin Grammy awards.

        Agustin Lara (1897-1970) — One of Mexico's most famous and prolific composers of song, Mr. Lara's songs have been championed by opera tenor Placido Domingo and the legendary Chavela Vargas. In his estimated 700 songs (420 are known) he merged the habanera, tango, foxtrot and the Cuban bolero.

        Tania Leon (b. 1943) — This Cuban-American composer and conductor began her career as a pianist. She studied with composer Ursula Mamlok, and had a long relationship with Dance Theatre of Harlem as pianist, conductor and composer. From 1993-96 she was new music adviser for the New York Philharmonic.

        Her style blends elements from her African and Cuban heritage, with American influences such as jazz and gospel. Her orchestra piece, Carabali, for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1991, is dense, rhythmic and colorful. Among her large works, she wrote an opera, Scourge of Hyacinths, for the city of Munich, which premiered in 1994.

        Julian Orbon (1925-91) — Mr. Orbon was born in Spain and moved to Cuba with his family as a teen. From 1946-60 he directed the Orbon Conservatory in Havana, founded by his father. Later he moved to Mexico City and eventually to New York, where he taught and composed.

        He was inspired by the music of his close friends Carlos Chavez and Heitor Villa-Lobos, but elements such as Gregorian Chant also shaped his music.

        Gabriela Ortiz (b. 1964) — This up-and-coming Mexican composer has been commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Her music weaves traditional and popular styles with rock, African and Afro-Caribbean music. Her works range from her rhythmic Concierto Candela for percussion to electro-acoustic works.

        Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) — This Argentinian composer studied with the famed Nadia Boulanger in Paris, who helped him discover that his true voice was in the tango. Mr. Piazzolla is responsible for elevating the tango to an art form. Much of his music is composed for chamber ensemble with bandoneon, the accordion-like instrument most associated with the tango in Argentina.

        Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) — Mr. Ponce was Mexico's first nationalistic composer, who wove popular Mexican themes throughout his styles, from his early romantic music to a later, more contemporary style. He is best known internationally for his song “Estrellita,” although he composed a variety of music, including music for the piano and a large repertory for the guitar.

        Some, including Spanish guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia, consider Mr. Ponce to be largely responsible for the revival of the guitar as a solo concerto instrument, particularly in his Concierto del sur.

        Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) — This colorful composer, born in Mexico City on the last day of 1899, began his career as a violinist and conductor. He studied violin in Chicago and played in a theater orchestra in San Antonio; for a time he conducted an orchestra in Mobile, Ala. From 1929-35, he was assistant conductor of the Mexico Symphony Orchestra under Carlos Chavez. While there, he composed six pieces for the orchestra and taught violin at the conservatory.

        A political radical, Mr. Revueltas went to Spain in 1937, where he fought in the Republican struggle against Franco. He was known as a hedonistic and gregarious person; his premature death of alcoholism was likely brought on by his bouts with manic-depression.

        Among his greatest achievements are 10 film scores and Sensemaya, his most popular orchestral showpiece. Although his music fell into oblivion after his death, he has had recent champions, including Leonard Bernstein, who resurrected Sensemaya.

        Mr. Revueltas skillfully wove popular Mexican folk music, such as street tunes and Mariachi styles, into his scores. He was inspired by Stravinsky, and often evokes that composer's rhythmic and instrumental style. Some consider him a Mexican Charles Ives.

        Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) — The Brazilian composer wrote more than 1,000 works of all types, but is most celebrated for his Bachianas Brasileiras, nine pieces in homage to J.S. Bach. He created captivating music by synthesizing Brazilian folk melodies and dance rhythms with traditional art forms.

        For more information about Latin American music:

The Latin American Music Center promotes Latin-American composers and has one of the most complete collections of Latin-American art music in the world: (812) 855-2991 or visit

        The Web site has an extensive resource list of books, journals and Web sites about Latin-American music.

        One example of what the center does is a new CD project. The first disc, Carlos Chavez: Musica de Camara Inedita, has unknown chamber music by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez and features Mexico's chamber orchestra, La Camerata de las America, with soprano Lourdes Ambriz, Indiana University's Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, and Venezuelan conductor Carmen Tellez.


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