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Music Feature

2009 Biannual Festival of Contemporary Brazilian Music

November 1, 2009 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:

Rio de Janeiro, which has had a string of winning luck in recent days — not only will it host the 2014 World Cup of soccer, but also the 2016 Olympic Games — continues a laudable and venerable tradition in the arts — the Biannual Festival of Contemporary Brazilian Music, now in its 18th edition. The 2009 Bienal, running from October 23 to November 1, included an even dozen concerts presenting works by composers throughout Brazil. It was supported by the Ministry of Culture and administered by Funarte (the National Foundation for the Arts), with participating organizations including the Department of Culture of the State of Rio de Janiero, the Foundation for the Arts of Rio de Janeiro, the Universidade Federal Fluminense of Niteroi, the School of Music of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and the Brazilian Academy of Music. Over 400 pieces by 256 composers were submitted for consideration by the jury, and about a quarter of this rich harvest was included in the dozen concerts of the festival — one could easily imagine seven weeks of continuous nightly concerts!

The festivals generally open with a night of works for orchestra, and 2009 was no exception, but the five works heard were all created by recipients of a program of grants supporting creative work awarded in 2008 by Funarte. Performing was the National Symphonic Orchestra, directed by Lutero Rodrigues, an ensemble which is in residence at the Universidade Federal Fluminense across the bay from the city of Rio. The first work up was "Pontos de Bifurcação" by Felipe Kirst Adami, the second movement of a Sinfonia sistemica (2009). Evidently this is the slow movement of the work. It opened strikingly with material for the low strings alone — violas, celli, basses, developing motives of descending semitones, which continued at some length. Finally the voice of the trombone was heard, and the violins and other winds entered, leading to a discordant tutti (the outcome of all those semitones). This opened into a more active texture featuring the woodwinds, and finally the movement concluded over murky trills in the lower winds. The proliferation of ideas in the work more than anything else suggested an expansive Brazilian voice.

Next were two movements (II and III) from a five-movement work, Intervenções (2009), by Jose Orlando Alves, a mineiro, via Rio de Janeiro, who is now professor of composition at the University of Paraiba in João Pessoa. Alves, in contrast to the practice of Adami, is a composer who builds up an extensive structure based on an economy of materials. Here his basic building block was the tritone, heard in endless permutations. II began adagio, with the winds featured and engaging solo material for the harp, which reappeared several times, ritornello-fashion. Alves drew on bird-song as well as his tritones, and III moved to playful and good-humored pizzicati from the strings. The writing for the orchestra was transparent and masterful, one might say classical, in its clarity.

Closing the first half was O massapê vivo (2009), by Jorge Antunes, the most evidently "Brazilian" of the works for the evening. The title, which might be rendered as "The Living Clay," refers to the folk ceramic figures produced by the artist Mestre Vitalino, from the city of Caruaru, in the State of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, the region which is the heart of the nation's folk traditions. The work began with a noisy roll on the big bass drum, with grumblings from the low brass, and developed into a potpourri (or in Brazilian terms, a feijoada), with folk tunes floating in a rich broth, so that the listener was taking in various unrelated blocks of sound occuring at the same time, an effect familiar in American music in the works of Charles Ives, who also worked with folk materials. Finally the orchestral mass thinned out, and the first chair string players began to sing the tunes along with the swinging percussion. The oboes left the stage, and at the conclusion we heard the festive music moving farther and farther away. It is a wonderful evocation of a timeless Brazil, done in a thoroughly contemporary fashion.

Beginning the second part of the evening was Colapsos ("Collapses"), by Marco Siqueira, for string quartet and orchestra (featuring the Quarteto Radames Gnattali). Its title refers to the collapse of the wave form in physics, and the language of the work is highly advanced and abstract, with very little for the listener to grasp. One might describe the sound as atmospheric, with substantial use of pitched percussion, and a fundamental substrate of noise, including mumbling/whispering by the orchestra while the quartet plays. It is atmospheric — but from some planet with chlorine and methane to breathe. This is a work which is rebarbative in the extreme.

The concert concluded with a work in a far more traditional language by Eli-Eri Moura, also from the University of Paraiba, Uiramiri — Four Orchestral Scenes, which might be thought of as an updating of the pictorial symphonic poem in the Villa-Lobos vein. The movements were "Forest," "Fire," "Spirits," and "Phoenix." "Forest" is an effective rendering of the various sounds of the tropical forest (at least in the musical imagination), and interestingly enough uses a motive in thirds identical to one heard in the work by Alves earlier in the evening. "Fire" presents the quickness and unpredictability of the flames, with runs from the strings and bites from the brass. The "Spirits" are decidedly unquiet with altissimo strings and disturbing figures from the winds. The closing "Phoenix" implies the possibility of rebirth and redemption, with a noble theme from the horns (certainly the only such all evening), but closes with darker material. This is a strong and attractive work.


The second evening of the 2009 Bienal focused primarily on electroacoustic music, both in its pure form (so-called "tape" music) and mixed with live performers. First up, for technical reasons, was a work with video by Alexandre Sanches, Density. Lamentably, technical problems meant that the piece (being played from a DVD) was begun about five times before starting in earnest with full-screen video. The work begins with video and audio of soccer fans at a stadium being transformed little by little, and then moves to a piece built around the whooshes of passing vehicles (something done more memorably and with more panache by Paul Lansky some years ago). Not very original or very strong, the piece at least has the merit of being relatively brief.

Next came a work, Contos Inacabados ("Unfinished Stories") by a local young composer, Paulo Dantas, for a small chamber ensemble (clarinet, bassoon, piano, percussion) with its sounds miked and modified electronically. It is an extended adagissimo, with very little happening, but it was warmly welcomed by the audience.

Sad to say, the rest of the first half was on an equally flat level. Que som é esse? ("What is this sound?") by Vinicius Giusti began while the audience was still burbling, with an isolated whack, and its whacks and bangs did not impat much of interest. Ecolocação ("Echolocation") by Daniel Puig has a promising premise, with soprano Gabriela Geluda alone on stage responding to the output of the various speakers distributed around her, and Geluda had a compelling presence, but the musical content is thin indeed. Worst of all was Outra hipotese para o fim de Jacques, o fatalista ("Another hypothesis for the end of Jacques, the fatalist") for processed cello (Hugo Pilger), which was grossly longer than its content of ideas or structure should have permitted (two elaborate page-turns left me wondering how much more was left before the blessed arrival of intermission).

The second half moved into the realm of actual real art, with two very strong pure electroacoustic works — Five places to Remember, by Fernando Iazzetta, and A imagem e o reino ("The image and the realm") by Washington Denuzzo. The Iazzetta demonstrated skill in invention and mutation of sounds and a mastery in putting these into a compelling sound narrative. Denuzzo's vocabulary recalled underwater sounds above all, combined into an attractive piece. Original in its scoring was Cantiga by Aurélio Edler Copes (based on the famous collection of Cantigas de Santa Maria) — two accordions and electronic sounds — but the result was bland and uninteresting. Arthur Kampela's Happy days for solo flute and electronic sounds (the title refers to the Beckett play) was a virtuoso tour de force for carioca flutist Andrea Ernest, who ended the piece whimpering into the mouthpiece of the instrument. Marcelo Ohara's Prato único is an exploration of the sound world of a single cymbal (hence the name), and the evening concluded with another mixed work, Open Field, by Daniel Barreiro, with violin soloist Mariana Salles. This was an evening with few gems, strewn among a wealth of dross, and which ended far later than it should have — it was for the dedicated only.


Sunday evening's program returned to more traditional media and began on a high note with two sets of songs. The strongest work of the evening was the one which began the night, a set of three songs on poems by Fernando Pessoa each beginning with the imperative "Dorme!" ("Sleep!") which were sung impeccably by soprano Maira Lautert — the words set beautifully by composer Flavio Santos Pereira, the syllables delivered with crystalline clarity by Lautert. The musical setting recalled the almost atonal expressionism of early 20th-century Vienna, and the piano accompaniment was rendered flawlessly by pianist Priscila Bonfim. This was a moment to treasure.

These were followed by four Lorca settings by Antonio Ribeiro, soulfully sung by contralto Carolina Faria, who can boast a beautifully produced and dark, dark, dark tone. The musical responses to the texts were effective and well-made — these songs, and those by Santos Pereira deserve to enter the repertoire immediately.

Third was a four-movement concerto for acoustic guitar and six percussionists by Roberto Victorio — Tetragrammaton XI. The guitar was considerably amplified, but even so there were issues of balance in combining the soloist with the band of percussion in the opening movement. Things were clearer in the two interior movements, the second of these a solo for the guitar. The performance by Paulo Pedrassoli, with the ensemble conducted by the composer, was simply brilliant. This is a very effective piece in a modern and attractive idiom.

After the sublime, we had a work by Clayton Mamedes about which I could exhaust my stock of pejorative epithets without yet doing it justice. This was the Paisagem bucólica ou jogo das longas variações ("Bucolic landscape, or set of long variations"). The composer seems to have instructed the musicians intentionally to play out of tune, an additional poke in the eye with a sharp stick to the long-suffering listener, for the melodic/rhythmic content for this small ensemble work (flute, violin, oboe, viola, cello, percussion) was already banal without it. Dull, dull, dull — fifteen minutes wasted which will never again return.

The situation improved with the first two works on the second half — Yu, by Mário Ferraro, for flute, bassoon, horn, harp, contrabass and piano, deftly combining these instruments with wit, was warmly received, and two disparate movements from a Suite by Heitor Oliveira proved the most musically conservative of any of the works so far — first a set of little songs for soprano, flute, piano and percussion (titled Aperitifs) in a contrapuntal idiom, ably delivered by soprano Veruschka Mainhard, and then some completely tonal music for a sort of stage band (flute, clarinet, trumpet, sax, trombone, two guitars, piano, percussion) in a nervously Brazilian style — the sort of thing which would have been viewed as dangerously reactionary not so long ago. Well-done — I would be interested to hear more from Oliveira.

The evening closed with work equal in its dreadfulness to the Mamedes — the Paranambucae by Sérgio Kafejian, with some good ideas, perhaps (with movements titled "Space," "Frequency," "Duration") but with a musical content verging on the absurd — offensive and deafening screeching from the clarinet, childish banging on the piano. This was simply awful — and far too long. It is a work I would pay to avoid hearing.


Monday night at the Bienal brought a second program of orchestral works (with one exception), bookended by pieces from doyens of the Brazilian compositional scene — Ernst Mahle and Ricardo Tacuchian. Performing was the Symphonic Orchestra of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) under the sure direction of conductor Ernani Aguiar (also a composer of note himself). The Abertura Festiva by Mahle was the platonic ideal of such a work, opening with a fanfare in slow triplets (such as immortalized in the music for Star Wars by John Williams), and quickly moving to a theme recalling, to these ears at any rate, a sort of frenetic 1950s modernity, though with a Brazilian tinge (the lombardic snap so often associated with popular music here). The overture then moved to a more reflective and lyrical theme, and the final chord was arrived at through a vigorous accelerando. Very conservative in style, it is an effective work, and with a match between its material and extent (clocking in at around six minutes.)

Second was an extended work in one movement by Valéria Bonafé, Lagoa ("Lake"), depicting, I imagine (since program notes were lacking), a lake in the rainforest untouched by humans. The work begins with a quiet cymbal roll and long tones from the solo first chairs of the strings, with percussion (the various noises of the forest). After five minutes or so we hear something indigenous from the flute (unclear whether this is birdsong or native flute), and eventually there is a crescendo to fortissimo. One might have expected contrasting material, allegro, but to her credit Bonafé maintains the same affect throughout. This is a very accomplished work from a composer seemingly at the beginning of a promising career.

The first half concluded with a three-movement Orchestral Suite by Rafael Bezerra, fairly conservative in its idiom (though not as conservative as the Mahle), and displaying a skilled deployment of the resources of the full orchestra, with a particular affection for the boom/crash of the bass drum and cymbal. In the second movement the climax of the discourse is a moment for brass choir followed by the orchestal tutti. The third movement is big, bold, almost romantic in scope if not in sound, and the young composer received a loud ovation (he is presently a masters´ student in composition in Rio, and a professional singer to boot — not a usual combination). I expect we will hear more from both Bonafé and Bezerra.

The first work after intermission was quite a contrast — a work for solo viola, with the instrumentalist alone on the darkened stage. This was Obsessione by Arthur Rinaldi, an extended piece with a compelling shape (the note spoke of the "obsessive return" of material), concluding with a passage in altissimo, piano, which held the audience in rapt attention. This strong work was given a very strong performance by violist Silvio Santoro.

The orchestra returned for three more works, first the Movimento Concertante ("Concertante Movement") by Pedro Augusto Dias, with clarinetist Cristiano Alves as soloist. This is an amazingly virtuoso one-movement concerto, with an original sound, and yet one comprehensible at the first listening. Alves played with fluency and panache, undaunted by the technical demands of a work which exploits the entire range of the instrument (to the very top!), and which manages the prodigy of very full writing for the orchestra, which yet did not drown out the soloist. It was an exceptional moment. Bravo!

Next came Casa...magia...palhaço enfeitiçado ("House...magic...enchanted clown"), by Joélio Luiz Santos, which I imagined as a pictorial sort of work that Disney might have included in Fantasia. This apparently makes reference to a popular song in its rhythms (not one that I know, alas), and the motives sounded very bluesy (given to the brass), with a spooky moment late in the work for altissimo strings and harp. It is very effectively written for the orchestra.

Closing the evening was another particularly Brazilian work, reflecting the magic of the rain forest, Filho da Floresta, by Ricardo Tacuchian, a senior figure in composition in Rio (retired from UniRio), based on a fine poem by Thiago de Mello, which was sensitively set and marvelously sung by soprano Veruschka Mainhard, whose instrument is Wagnerian in scope, lovely in tone, and intelligently used by its owner, who must certainly be entering her prime as a vocalist. She effortlessly matched the outpourings of the full orchestra in the work, which begins with an adagio depicting the stillness of the forest, moves to an allegro with crashing thunderbolts, and returns to a slower movement in which the poet declaims "I am child of this generous realm...where men....though born consumed by the carnivorous flower of misery, are born wise, converse with the clouds...." The B material returns briefly, and finally the opening text, to close. It is a beautiful and moving piece that provided a fine end to an evening which moved from strength to strength.


Tuesday at the Bienal offered an evening devoted to percussion, in combination with other instruments, coordinated by young Carioca percussionist Ana Letícia Barros, and presenting twelve works — a long evening, due to the multiple resettings of the stage. First up was an intriguing work for solo violin and percussion (performed by Mariana Salles and Leo Souza respectively) — Enigma, by Pablo Aldunate, a piece in one uninterrupted movement but with four connected sections — a slow prelude with a regular harmonic rhythm and modal harmonies, a faster section recalling folk music or jazz, with repetitive patterns in the marimba, a very spare section with long tones from the violin combined with ringing tones from the vibraphone (interspersed with material for the marimba), and finally a faster conclusion. There were no clues as to the nature of the enigma, or what the answer might be, but the search for the solution was in-drawing.

The following work, Viagem ao oco das coisas ("Journey to the hole at the center of things"), by Valério Fiel da Costa, was in complete contrast. This was scored for prepared piano, percussion, guitar (acoustic, but plugged in), and tuba. The result is a background of tinkling sounds from the rhythm section, joined by the outsize musing of the tuba. This is an interesting concept, and pattern, but with no development, so it was not surprising that it simply stopped abruptly.

Next was the Lai de bisclavret by Tania Lanfer Marquez, the program of which evidently had something to do with a French medieval lycanthrope (not that you could tell). The tenor sax and percussion seemed to belong to different worlds, especially given the microtones of the saxophone. Unless these are used for comprehensible and expressive purposes, the result for the listener is simply something that sounds out-of-tune, as they did here. The materials were very sparse, with little to hold the interest, and there was no perceptible shape or narrative.

Calíope by Celso Mojola for ensemble of flute/piccolo (Sofia Ceccato), trumpet (Nailson Simões), trombone (Jacques Ghestem), piano (Marcelo Thys) and percussion (Pedro Sá) was quite entrancing, with some blues tonalities (minor/major thirds), changing meters (including a passage in a rolling triple meter), some Messiaen-like harmonies, and jazz-ish references very subtly interwoven, and the whole was exquisitely played by the ensemble. This is a work that would bear repeated listenings.

The following Ciaccona by Edson Zampronha seemed to have nothing to do with the 17th-century dance but belonged to the world of Eastern ritual — very quiet, slow, spare — recalling Japanese music, or perhaps Satie in its simplicity and clarity. This was followed by Falsas illusiones by Daniel Serale (played by the composer), the most explicitly intertextual work so far, which combines a set of toms, bass drum, and cymbal, with a tinnily reproduced recording of a work by Stravinsky. Each time the recorded work seems to approach a resolution it is interrupted by a bash on the bass drum, and and then restarts. Little by little the interruptions and the reaction to them become more frequent and more complex. It is an interesting conceit, and it provided a useful structure for a piece.

Luiz Carlos Cseko can always be counted on for something dramatic (in past years often accompanied by stage smoke). This year it was a work (Vermelho escuro ["Dark Red"]) for bass clarinet (and E-flat clarinet) and percussion, played in the light of three dim candles, with the houselights down, with multiphonic shrieks from the bass clarinet and spooky runs from the marimba. It created an entirely Halloweenish effect, carried off with flair by reedist Paulo Passos and percussionist Joaquim Abreu.

The second half brought five more works, all quite rewarding. The first was Mitos ("Myths") by young Carioca composer Nikolai Brucher (presently residing in Germany), a two-movement work depicting two figures from Brazilian folklore — the Iara and the Saci-Perere, the latter a sort of mischievous sprite or bogeyman well-known to Brazilian children, and particularly well-drawn here by Brucher in frantic and virtuoso writing for sax and marimba. Exceto, by Guilherme Bertissolo, for piano and two percussionists, Marina Spoladore, Karla Bach (non-tuned percussion) and Paraguassu Abrahão (vibraphone), is based around the harmonic series of the pitches C and F-sharp, with very effective writing for the piano (first-rate playing by the young Spoladore, as always for this artist) and a compelling shape leading to a beautiful conclusion.

Neder Nassaro, a member of the collective Preludio 21, based in Rio, has created some intriguing electroacoustic works, and has a flair for the dramatic gesture. His skills were in evidence in Circuito, for clarinet and percussion, with the clarinetist making extensive use of slap-tonguing and key-noise and the percussionist drawing the maximum expression from a small and relatively soft-voice instrumentarium — blocks, triangle, reco-reco, snare, and cymbal. The performers shaped very effective gestures into a convincingly dramatic shape.

The penultimate work for the evening was Do éter ao carbono ("From the ether to carbon"), by Natan Ourives, for an unusual combination of piano, clarinet, two cellists and two percussionists, drawing together disparate influences (if I didn't misread it, the composer's note refers to all the possibilities facing the contemporary composer, in the ether, as it were) into a compelling structure, including sounds from the Quartet for the End of Time (not unexpected for a work with clarinet, cello and piano). This piece had drama and swing.

The final work was Gestuelle (for violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet, piano, and percussion (Vinicius Amaral, Diana Lacerda, Marcio Costa, Nailson Simões, Marina Spoladore, and Eduardo Tullio) by Rodrigo Lima, and indeed it is so full of gesture and activity that I barely had a moment to scratch down a single note. The piece is virtuoso, with rhythmic verve and expression, despite a highly fragmented language, and the perfomance, under the baton of Roberto Victorio, was simply brilliant, bringing the evening to a spectacular ending. Bravo!


Wednesday at the Bienal focused on some more traditional chamber music genres, with two string trios, two string quartets, a work for violin and piano, and a set of songs with piano. First up was a set of seven miniatures or "character pieces" for violin and piano (Mariana Salles, Maria Teresa Madeira), the set of 7 peças Kurtágs ("Kurtág pieces"), by Cristiano Melli, in the style of the contemporary Hungarian master. These (but for the last couple) were works with no great romantic affects or technical demands but requiring a refined musicality from the interpreters. Salles was prominent in the festival (though for an overheard listener she is an artist who doesn't quite belong to the "new music" milieu), and she has a highly developed techique, with laser-sharp intonation, and a tightly controlled tone. Madeira, a carioca, who is familiar from earlier Bienals, is a lively presence at the piano, with every phrase duly inflected. The duo made the most of these brief works.

The following work for string trio, Traces foullis gris pâle presque blanc sur blanc, by Tatiana Catanzaro, with a title which I would imagine belongs more properly to a work of visual art, began with quiet harmonics, gradually adding more activity and sound. This is a very original voice, one that grows on you. I would be interested to hear other works of hers. The next work, Amadeus, by Liduino Pitombeira, one of the rare Brazilians who has achieved some renown outside the country, was a compelling integration of materials from an unfinished string trio (K.Anhang 66) by Mozart with new and much more contemporary material by Pitombeira. The work, in three movements, can boast a slow movement which will haunt the ear of the listener with beautiful minor-key harmonies ending in block-chord harmonics which hang in the air, and a closing movement which successfully achieves a tragic tone, something rare. A work which deserves to enter the international concert repertoire immediately, and one of the highlights of the Bienal, this was convincingly played by the trio of Adonhiran Reis, Gabriel Marin, and Martina Stroher.

Next was a fine set of children´s songs by Eduardo Guimarães Alvares, setting poems by Brecht (in translations by Paulo Cesar de Souza); the bright, sparkling, spiky works were exquisitely rendered by soprano Doriana Mendes (if Veruschka Mainhard is the master of operatic tone, Mendes is the master of the parlato) and pianist Maria Teresa Madeira, who had plenty to do and did it very well.

The first half closed with Teias, a work for ensemble of clarinet, trombone, double bass and piano (Marcos dos Passos, João Luis Areias, Alexandre Brasil, and Marisa Rezende), which took on the task of integrating the disparate discourses of these four instruments without ever quite fitting them into a single groove. (The listeners here were notably disturbed by one of that tribe of deranged older women who insist on bringing large plastic shopping bags to concert and rustling them noisily throughout. The hall has a sign banning children under 5 for reasons of noise, but nothing to deal with this plague.)

Opening the second half, almost by stealth (beginning simply a few seconds after the final signal for listeners to take their seats) was a setting of Psalm 23 by Danilo Machado. It pains me to have to report that the singing by the male quartet presenting the work was so poorly in tune that it was impossible to actually hear which intervals Machado had intended. The less said the better, alas.

Following was a simply brilliant work for string quartet, the Quarteto Circular ("Circular Quartet"), by Tim Rescala, so called due to the circularity of its themes. This is a work in one extended and always mutating movement, full of tension, with only a moment or two of lyricism for the viola and then the cello, leading to an extended and very difficult section in pizzicato for all four instruments, with a brief conclusion, arco. It is a marvelous piece which grabs your attention and never lets it go for a moment. The performance by the Quarteto Radamés Gnattali (Carla Rincon, Vinícius Amaral, violins, Fernando Thebaldi, viola, and Paulo Santoro, cello) was electric.

The string quartet Texturas, by Ronaldo Miranda, his first for the medium, is in four movements. The dialectic in Miranda's works is frequently between an innate romanticisim and lyricism and a modernism of means, and here between moments of dissonance and diatonicism. To my ears, this work was quite successful in mixing its lyricism (verging on sadness) and more athletic moments (particularly the second movement, with a sound recalling the modernism of the fifties, and the fourth, with more characteristically Brazilian motives and a well-calculated slow boil to the final climax). Once more, there was a fine rendering by the Gnattali Quartet.

Closing the evening was a set of elegies by Mauricio Dottori for soprano (Doriana Mendes) and instrumental ensemble (Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, alto flute, Paulo Passos, clarinet, Marcio Sanches, viola, and Rodrigo Favaro, double bass) which achieved notably less success than the quartets preceeeding. The idiom was atmospheric and French, and not all the details told, due to problems with balance and issues with intonation.


The scenic and nostalgic trolley from the neighborhood of Santa Teresa was running slow, but I still managed to arrive before Thursday evening's program at Sala Cecilia Meireles, which started with Britannic punctuality spot on eight o'clock. The first work was Reflected Sight, by Alfredo de Barros, for flute and piano, which had three movements listed but which unfolded in one unbroken span. The flutist (Andrea Ernest) made notable use of both micro-tones (quarter-tones) and whistle tones (sounds almost inaudible to the audience, so soft that the human voice could not even produce them, more the ghost of a sound than anything else). Pianist Tatiana Dumas made use of percussion and speech in contributing to an eerie and extremely effective work.

Next came a Toada (the name has no exact translation into English, but can indicate an archaic sort of folk tune or song from the backcountry), by Calimério Soares, for violoncello and piano (Mateus Ceccato, Katia Baloussier). This was a very tonal work in an elegiac tone, featuring a cadenza for the cellist and a characteristic arpeggiated flourish to close.

Following were three works featuring either members of, or the entire Quinteto Villa-Lobos (Antonio Carlos Carrasqueira, flute, Luiz Carlos Justi, oboe, Paulo Sérgio Santos, clarinet, Aloysio Fagerlande, bassoon, and Philip Doyle, horn). As soon as the trio of Carrasqueira, Santos, and Fagerlande began to play Yuri Prado's Five Carnavalesque Pieces, I realized that these three works would have an unfair advantage — the performers are simply at the very top of what they do. Since I am a flutist, I am particularly wowed by Carrasqueira, who manages to give the somehow contradictory impression that 1. his whole body is involved in the music-making and expression, and 2. he has such a mastery of the flute that only a fraction of his attention is really necessary to produce a tone of such beauty and expression that anyone else would have to give 110 percent. But indeed the other members of the quartet are at this exalted level as well.

Yuri Prado's pieces have no particularly carnivalesque references, at least not that were obvious to these ears, but they were extremely effective for the combination. Harry Crowl's "Sapo não pula por boniteza, mas sim por precisão" ("The frog does not jump for beauty, but rather because he must") — a reference to the author Guimarães Rosa — was one long (and successful) movement of intricate counterpoint in which all three high instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet) were equal in function (with no real bass line), and employed multiphonics for the oboe and clarinet. Again, there were no particularly explicit folkloric references.

Thiago Sias offered a one-movement Quinteto de sopros (Wind Quintet) which employed techniques rarely heard elsewhere at this festival — a pedal bass underpinning a modal sound which sounded rather grave and Slavic to me, a work which by and large was slow and lyrical, though with moments of greater intensity. The narrative was perhaps a little difficult to follow at first listening, but the ending moments were beautiful and sad.

The first half closed with a sextet for saxophones (soprano, 2 altos, 2 tenors, baritone), Aije, by Marcos Nogueira, which was beset by some perfomances issues (the soprano seemed overbalanced, the baritone too loud, and there were moments when I had my doubts about the intonation). The composer managed to bring the six saxes to a paroxysm of discordant overtones before resolving the tension (a moment that will remain in the ear), but all in all this work perhaps had more potential than it achieved.

The second half looked brief on the page but, for better or worse, such was not the case. Superlative soprano Doriana Mendes was featured in three sets of songs, the last with cello as well, but of the three only the first was recommendable — "Leibniz," from the Four Song-Fragments by Paulo de Tarso Salles, with a witty interaction of text and music. The Três cantos para espaços vazios ("Three songs for empty spaces"), by Paulo Guicheney, had far too much space and not enough interest, and even less rewarding were the Canções dos Olhos by Paulo C. Chagas. (I shuddered when one song concluded and it became obvious that another would follow.)

Patience was rewarded with the concluding 14 Miniatures for piano by Almeida Prado, given a brilliant and sensitive performance by Benjamin da Cunha Neto who, if I am not mistaken, is a specialist in the composer's work. These works are inspired by the grandchildren of the composer, and there was a certain childish clarity and joy in these relatively diatonic and beautifully-made works, which deserve to enter the broader piano repertoire.


The arrival of the weekend with Friday's program at the Bienal meant that the program of orchestral and choral works could count on a substantially larger audience than the events midweek. The first work for the evening was a six-movement suite for string orchestra by Alexandre Schubert, a resident of Rio, but a native of the state of Minas Gerais. The work depicted the characteristic mountains of the state (first movement, in two parts), and five cities — Tiradentes, São João Del Rei, Prados, Mariana, and Ouro Preto — all places which could boast baroque splendor in architecture and music in the 18th century after the discovery of gold in the region. Schubert is a gifted composer who frequently writes in an idiom that recalls the work of Hindemith — relatively tonal, and free of spiky and irritating dissonances. The various movements were propelled by accomplished counterpoint, and the conclusion of the piece was greeted by shouts of approbation from the audience.

Next was Arpoador by Diogo Ahmed. The title literally means "Harpooner", as in one who harpoons whales, but presumably it refers to the rocky point at the eastern end of Ipanema Beach (which separates it from Copacabana). The subtext of the work certainly was something tragic — a drowning? a premature death? — since this was one of the most unremittingly sad works I have heard in some time, in a predominantly tonal idiom and low register. It was very effective.

Concluding the first half was the Little Concerto for Violin and Strings by Edino Krieger, one of the leading figures in the oldest generation of Brazilian composers. The work begins strikingly with several slow phrases for unaccompanied violin (apparently using material from an unfinished work of Krieger's dating to the 1940s), and then moving to propulsively rhythmic material from the orchestra. The slow movement which followed was unabashedly romantic in character with a BIG TUNE for the first violins and a deft and affecting close with shimmering high strings while the soloist ends low in his range. The work closes with a very effective allegro, and throughout the work the solo material is idiomatic for the instrument while nevertheless original in its content (if I am not mistaken, the violin was Krieger's first instrument). It received excellent and assured solo work from violinist Daniel Guedes.

The second half continued with two more works for string orchestra, the Sinfonieta No. 2 by Marcelo Rauta, and Sem amor, por amor ("Without love, for love"), by Rodrigo Garcia. The Sinfonieta begins with such a profusion of ideas that it seemed like the composer had problems with editing the outpourings of his creativity — the affect, meter, etc. changed every few moments — this, for a movement that the composer told us in his notes was in sonata form. Eventually the movement gained a certain stability (with what may have been the second theme?). The second movement is slow, in the minor mode, but the combination of melodies and harmonies often seemed too simple and not quite "right" — too much "wrong note" music here. The concluding quick movement has a very bizarre moment where the movement comes to a halt, and we heard seemingly unrelated harmonics, solo, from the first chairs. It is a work which might point to interesting future work but for the moment showed a composer far from mastery.

Much, much more distressing was the work by Garcia, also in the minor mode (where is all this angst coming from?), unremittingly loud and high-tension, pulsating rhythm in the bass, and a piece that my notes tell me went "on and on and on and on and on and on...." It was one of the works which might have profitably been replaced by one of the several hundred pieces not accepted.

My spirits drop when I see choral works listed in Brazil on a classical program because, for all its advantages musically, Brazil's choral tradition is many notches below its achievements in soccer, let's say, with frequent deficits in the area of tuning and blend. Cantiga, by Guilherme Barroso, an effective setting of poetry by Manuel Bandeira, takes advantage of what choruses can actually do well — simple modal harmonies, simple chromaticism, homophony; the composer offers hypnotic repetitions of the phrase "nas ondas" ("in the waves") and frames the music with imitations by the singers of the whoosh of the waves rolling onto the sands. Less effective was the unconvincing idiom of the Ave Maria (in Portuguese) by Marco Feitosa. Both were performed by the Brasil Ensemble of UFRJ under the direction of Maria José Chevitarese.

Concluding the evening was a surprisingly brief (seven minutes or so) neo-baroque Magnificat by João Guilherme Ripper, scored for soprano, alto, and bass solos, chorus, plus string orchestra with trumpets. To my ears, the opening was too heavy, too ponderous (any composer setting this text must expect to be compared to the Bach setting); the one continous movement became fleeter of foot at "fecit potentiam," in a quick 7-beat measure. Of the solo moments, only that for the soprano was truly effective (at "sicut locutus") — the bass was having a bad night, though it must be noted that he was replacing another bass who was indisposed due to illness. Ripper sensibly brought back the "fecit potentiam" material for his "Gloria Patri" (where Bach reuses the opening of -his- work). The work was greeted with enthusiastic applause.

Saturday afternoon

The final two days of the Bienal offer two concerts each day, starting at 4 and at 8 p.m. — that is, about ten hours of contemporary music between 4 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 p.m. Sunday. Saturday afternoon began with a brief song from Mauricio de Bonis, Carta a uma jovem vibora ("Letter to a young viper"), with a novel and effective scoring for soprano, with piano and guitar. Much of the work is accompanied by plucked chords from both the piano and guitar, giving the effect of a powerful and oversize guitar. The music is slow and hieratic (unfortunately I couldn't catch the words), and it was nicely sung by young Caroline de Comi. The guitarist was the estimable Maria Haro, with the composer at the piano.

One of the real finds of the festival was the work which followed, Metafonia, for cello and piano, by Aluisio Didier, an extended work, rhapsodic, lyrical, in multiple sections, but beautifully proportioned, and marvelously played by cellist Antonio del Claro and the always impeccable Maria Teresa Madeira. This is a work to live with. Next came a Concertino by Ricardo Szpilman for harmonica and piano (José Staneck, Kátia Baloussier), one of the rare works at the festival with explicit Brazilian references, in this case, to the folk music of the Northeast. It is melodious and very attractive, and it received an excellent performance by the duo.

The title of Em Verde e Amarelo ("In Green and Yellow"), by Rodolfo Coelho de Souza, for piano four hands, refers to the Brazilian national colors (green for nature, yellow for gold) and also to the work In White and Black by Debussy. I might have been more receptive to a different performance by a different duo, but here the impression was "main theme à la bang-bang", with bits of Debussy thrown in — a big, blowsy shapeless mass with no form and pounded to death by the merciless hands of the two women who did it to death. Ouch! They were a little more gentle, but not much, in the attractive pieces by Murillo Santos which followed, the Homenagem a Villa-Lobos, in two pieces, "Canto da saudade (in memoriam)" and "Tempo de Marcha."

Closing the first half was, alas, a simply dreadful work by Silvio Ferraz, Passo de Manoel Dias, theoretically a rewriting of colonial-era music by Brazilian composer Manoel Dias (hence the name, Passo de Manoel Dias), scored for long notes a floating, harmonically drifting string quartet, enlivened (ha!) by plinks from the piano.

The second half, likewise, was a mixed bag. It opened with two works by leading figures from the Rio scene, Marisa Rezende and Caio Senna (the former retired from teaching at UFRJ, the latter on the faculty at UNIRIO). Preludiando, by Rezende, was commissioned by the internationally renowned cellist Antonio Meneses to serve as prelude for performances of the Bach Suite No. 5. There was no hint of a Bach flavor here, but the work successfully inhabited the tradition of the improvised instrumental prelude of the Baroque, in which the player warms up to the main work with a succession of scales and arpeggios, here played by Antonio del Claro once again. Senna's work, Das varias maneiras de se estar só ("On the various ways of being alone"), for clarinet quartet, began with the four players (Thiago Tavares, Walter Jr., Marcelo Ferreira, and Ricardo Ferreira), arrayed in different places on the stage, but they gradually gravitated to their stands for a lyrical and pensive piece with memorable moments including one for solo clarinet solo over a held chord from the rest of the ensemble. It was very fine.

Referências (also for clarinet quartet), by André Martins, begins slowly (beginning slowly seems to be the "new black" at this festival, at which the preferred tempo marking seems to be adagio, or even slower), and picked up momentum with popping fifths, showing Martins to be a capable master of rhythm; he saved the best for last, with a beautiful ending (something not always at a premium).

The next two works should certainly not have been included in the Bienal — the first, by Salomão Habib, a forgettable piece of popular-style music scored for guitar quartet (Ritual Sinfonico), and the second, Toada, by Zoltan Paulinyi, written for and played by the composer on the viola pomposa (a five-string viola), a hermetic work with bizarre intonation and odd harmonic thinking (if one can be that generous), something that only the composer could play, certainly. Ugh! Were it a movie, I would have left the cinema.

Luckily, this was followed by one of the highlights of the festival, the Two Pieces for Clarinet Solo by Rio composer Guilherme Bauer, music difficult to play but not to listen to, music with moments of stunning virtuosity, and given a simply brilliant performance by clarinetist Cristiano Alves. Bravo! This is a piece that will remain in the memory. International clarinetists, here is a work to test your mettle and wow your audiences.

The concluding work was a set of two enticing songs in Spanish, Narciso y Adonis convertidos en flores, by André Vidal, scored for soprano (Veruschka Mainhard) and ensemble of flute (Laura Ronai), clarinet (Cristiano Alves, once again), viola (Fernando Thebaldi), and cello (Paulo Santoro), with the first song focusing on Adonis, the second on Narcissus, the first slow, the second quicker, with intricate and attractive figuration for the instrumental ensemble, the music very French in character (as one might expect with the flute taking pride of place), beautifully played, and beautifully sung by Mainhard. The only deficit was that the Spanish text did not come across clearly (something easily remedied with a printed text).

Saturday Night

Saturday evening at the Bienal began with another work of explicit homage to the Brazilian who is still the only Brazilian composer known to everyone, a half-century after his death. This was Villalobiando, for quartet of violin, guitar, viola and cello (Ricardo Amado, Maria Haro, Gabriel Marin, and Ricardo Santoro), with the guitar amplified (a bit too much for my taste — I never think it a bad thing for violins to play at a lower dynamic, rather than forcing other instruments to match them). The work starts out tonally in a bouncy duple meter, and progresses episodically, mainly in a bright and happy mood, until entering a discordant and consciously ugly patch, which leads, accelerando, to a final cadence which is inconclusive. It was nicely played by Maria Haro and accomplices.

Deflectere I by Alexandre Lunsqui is an excellent demonstration of what a gifted composer can make of restricted materials, with its undeviating focus around one tone or tonal center, with single-minded, perhaps obsessive returns, beginning with microtonal wobbles, expanding, and finally returning to the original material. The performance by violinist Ricardo and clarinetist Thiago Tavares was witty and right on the mark. Maria Haro then returned for a set of new serial etudes for solo guitar by Carlos Almada — attractive works, particularly the final study with its reiterated major chord.

The quartet of clarinets which had given such a good account of itself in the afternoon program (Thiago Tavares, Walter Jr., Marcelo Ferreira, and Ricardo Ferreira) presented a very successful piece in several movements by Marco Lozano, Quarteto; the first movement has rhythm and swing, with trills and repetitive patterns in a floating tonality, leading to a fine strident climax. The second movement is contrapuntal, with a hypnotic quality, and the obsessive trills return to close out the work.

The remaining works on the first half continued strong. First a beautiful, calm, lyrical but atonal andante was lovingly interpreted by cellist Marcus Ribeiro and pianist Luiz Henrique Senise — this was the Rituais e máscaras ("Rituals and masks") by Rodrigo Marconi. Finally there was an exhilarating piece in quintuple meter (Duo in 5, also for violoncello and piano, this time performed by Lars Hoefs and Luciano Magalhães), by Marcelo Carneiro. This is a tour-de-force, with a highly active and very idiomatic piano part, so much so that it sometimes drowned out the cello. (Critics might complain that there was too much repetition, but it made its effect.) It was brilliant rendered by Hoefs and Carneiro, with vivid rhythms and precise ensemble.

The first work on the second half, Biologie litttorale des mer temperées, by Bruno Ruviaro, for solo cello, was a disappointment: juvenile, and a patchwork of fragments from which it was difficult to extract a coherent narrative or shape. This was followed by an interesting and different work for Les Paul electric guitar with effects, and prepared piano (Marcos Campello and Cláudia Castelo Branco) — Poslúdio by Jean-Pierre Caron — in three movements, slow-fast-slow, with steady rhythm only in the central portion, with the composer blending harmonics and volume effects from the guitar with the creatively-altered timbres of the piano. It is quite attractive.

The following work fell prey to miscommunication (scores not delivered), but we had a performance via CD — not the best of options. This was Caminhos, passagens e saidas by Gustavo Penha.

The concluding quarter of the program began with two very attractive movements by Renato Vasconcelos — Dois fragmentos — for violin, cello and piano (Ricardo Amado, Ricardo Santoro, and Kátia Baloussier). I was happy to hear, finally, a work that began in rhythm and a composer who knows how to create and combine memorable gestures, without oversaying what he is about. He will certainly have more to contribute.

Gnusianas by Marcos Lucas (flute, clarinet, and piano — Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, Vicente Alexim, and Pablo Panaro), named for the contemporary music ensemble at UNIRIO, is a very dark work in three movements, with piano strumming and obscure clarinet rumblings to begin, and the mood becoming even darker, if that is possible, without a moment of respite, light or humor. It is a surprisingly Gothic work for bright and tropical city like Rio.

Closing the evening were four little character pieces by Luciano Leite Barbosa, Cinerário, brief, spare but effective movements for flute, clarinet, piano and guitar, with motives tossed back and forth among the members of the quartet (Márcio Angelotti, Alexim, Panaro, and Gabriel Lucena).

Sunday Afternoon

It had been a cloudy week during the Bienal, and Sunday afternoon was dreary, with steady rain falling. Those who have a tendency to nap in the afternoon would have had this tendency reinforced by the first half of the program, with little at a scintillating level of excitement. The program began with a work for piano four hands, Dualidade ("Duality"), in two movements linked by an interlude, and the whole thing rather too dryly contrapuntal for me to enjoy, though at least the fugal motives made reference to Northeastern folk music. The 5 canções de Ernesto Pachito, by Ernesto Hartmann, for soprano and piano (Luciana Costa e Silva and Ronal Silveira) were somewhat more enticing, though verging on the melodramatic (the singer declaims, and most of the musical interest is in the detail of the accompaniment). The Sonata (Fantasia) by Mario Ficarelli, for cello and piano (Lars Hoefs and Luciano Magalhães) is large in scale and traditional in form, if not in terms of content, with the tonality rather obscure and difficult. There was not much to grab onto here, at least for these ears. The first half came to a depressing conclusion with Vales, for solo piano, by Maria Helena Rosas Fernandes; it was ably interpreted by Ruth Serrão (recently retired from the piano faculty at UNIRIO), but it is a work with an unremittingly grim view of life (the "valleys" depicted, we were told, are those of love, pain, and peace, but all three shared a common minor tonality and Sisyphean repetition).

Things picked up with the second half. This began with a work for solo clarinet — Feixe de luz, desolado e turvo, no anoitecer ("Band of light, desolate and turbid, at nightfall"), by Luis Passos, compellingly played by Vicente Alexim, beginning lyrically and gradually picking up, a one-movement span, very well-written for the instrument. Adejo, for solo cello, by Cyro Delvizio, much closer to the spirit of the unaccompanied Bach suite than the Preludiando of Rezende heard on Saturday afternoon, begins with a long section moving quickly in irregular meters and perpetual motion, so long that one thought that this might be all the material in the piece. Delvizio then moves through several constrasting sections — slow and cantabile, a sort of recitativo, and a return to an allegro movement. It is a long work to make hang together, but it was well-played by cellist Paulo Santoro.

The Ode to Blumine by João Svidzinski, for violins, viola, cello, and double bass (Fernando Pereira, Dhyan Toffolo, Diemerson Sena, Cláudia Grosso, and Larissa Coutrim) is another work I wish the programming committee had reconsidered. A composerwho claims to do hommage to Mahler should have more chops than this — the work was incoherent in shape, with no intelligible direction, and the writing for strings simply inept, a mass of almost naked homophony. If you have five string parts at your disposal, don't write two pairs of parts in unison!

The program concluded with a work, O enigmatico gato de rimas ("The enigmatic rhyming cat"), by Paulo Rios Filho, which employs the same string ensemble as the previous work, plus clarinetist Marcos Passos, and has the intriguing program of combining the Northeastern folk music of the repentistas (singers of improvised verse, often in pairs with one poet competing against the other) with Viking metal from contemporary Scandinavia, but neither the idiom of the repentistas nor the style of the rockers is much evident, and the only clear reference is a duel between violin and clarinet over sustained strings.

Sunday evening

Sunday evening brought the final step in a marathon of twelve concerts in ten days and another program featuring orchestral works, this time with a chamber orchestra put together especially for the Bienal by Aloysio Fagerlande and Mariana Salles and conducted by Roberto Duarte. The opening work, however, was for solo piano, Sons voláteis ("Volatile sounds") by Ticiano Rocha, another of those contemporary works with no steady pulse, nervously rhapsodic in character, and leaning toward the fortissimo end of the spectrum. Ingrid Barancoski elicited a large sound from a large-voiced Steinway and was a fine interpreter for the work, which ends abruptly (I suppose that's what volatile things do).

Next up was a concerto, with Barancoski as soloist, by Paulo Raposo, post-modern in style in the sense that it seemed to refer to other musical styles, beginning as a sort of odd waltz, with prominent solos from the flute and the oboe. There is a slow movement in 4/4 (pom by the piano on the first beat, ta-ta-ta by the orchestra on 2, 3, 4), with a nice moment for wind choir, and then a scherzo. It is very effective and well-shaped music that held the interest without overstaying its welcome, and it received a fine performance by Barancoski and the virtuoso members of the chamber orchestra, including four of the members of the Quinteto Villa-Lobos.

Eternidade a deriva by Bruno Angelo begins quickly but turns into a sort of slow night music, with a solo turn for cello. It was followed by a very striking work by Dimitri Cervo, from Porto Alegre, a veteran of other Bienals — the Concerto, Op. 31, for guitar and chamber orchestra, with soloist Paulo Pedrassoli. With the exception of the negligible guitar quartet by Habib, this was probably the only truly tonal work in the entire festival, in a luxuriant D major for all three movements, and very idiomatically conceived for the guitar, with the low E tuned to D to facilitate ringing chords strummed in the tonic. The slow movement features lyrically beautiful solos for flute and oboe over accompanimental figuration from the soloist. The concluding fast movement returns to a quick dance topic, and throughout the figuration for the strings reflects the composer's study of the American minimalists. The work elicited shouts and whistle of admiration from the audience, though I imagine other composers may have been shocked by the audacity of the composer in writing something so direct, a work that could and should compete in terms of audience with works like the Concierto de Aranjuez or other popular classics. Sharon Isbin, here is something for your repertoire or your next CD.

Alexandre Espinheira's Meta: 1, alvo, mira (I won't try to translate the title), was the ultimate contrast to Cervo, highly dissonant, with multiple intersecting and complex lines, and climaxing with a huge discord. I can't imagine maintaining this language over a span much longer than the brief moment the work occupied.

The young Vicente Alexim (either still part of or recently graduated from student life in Rio — he was greeted with a huge ovation from his friends in the hall) — had been heard as soloist in other composers' works earlier in the Bienal, but here he shone as both composer and performer in the same work, a fine Chamber Concerto in three linked movements ("Tense and mysterious," "Slow and nostalgic," and "Violently"). Alexim is a brilliant and unflappable soloist who performed his work from memory. It is a piece with impressive writing for the clarinet and some nice moments for the orchestra, overall quite noisy and dissonant. Someone with this level of both technique and imagination should go far.

I had my doubts at the opening of the Estudo alquímico ("Alchimical Study") by Armando Lobo, the very final work for the entire festival, as it begins with an opening which seems to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, with moments in very quick succession for piano, high strings, oboe multiphonic, tamtam, vibraphone, and brass. How could the composer make such a mish-mash cohere? Lobo moves to a more lyrical section with more extended solos for oboe, trumpet, flute and bassoon, and finally a noisy bang-boom finale, all suavely negotiated by conductor Roberto Duarte and his forces. The piece received long applause, partly due to its merits but I think also in appreciation by the audience for the incredible amount of effort and passion represented by the entire Bienal — and with the knowledge that such a rich offering of contemporary music in one time and place would only come again in two years, with the 2011 Bienal.