The 17th Bienal of Contemporary Brazilian Music

Opening the festivities was
the Fanfarrona (Grand Fanfare) by Tim Rescala, a work which had been commissioned
in 2005 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Sala. Surprisingly for a
work which one might imagine should have a festive character from the outset, the
piece began with no clear character at all, no strong statement, no definitive tone.
Gradually the piece took shape, until the concluding section contrasted bits of various
familiar marches, etc. for brass, with the more “serious” materials in the string in a
Ivesian way. Da Capo (2007) by Marcos Lucas was another work the form of which
was difficult to perceive in one hearing – both the gesture of the piece as a whole, and
the gestures of the individual moments, seemed undercharacterized, and the final climax
took this listener, at least by surprise. The work suffered from weak intonation in the
strings. H. Dawid Korenchendler was not heard at the 2005 Bienal, so it was good to
hear his strong Sinfonia no. 7 (Sinfonia quasi seria). Korenchendler is revered as a
teacher of counterpoint, but his music also reveals a keen sense of humor, evident in the
ironic title, and in the gestures of this good-tempered symphony, depicting the visit of a
circus to town, a work more easily intelligible both as a whole and in the individual
moments. Here once more the intonation of the orchestra was not up to snuff, a fact
most painfully apparent in the opening moments for low strings. The Abertura
by Rogério Krieger revealed a technically-skilled writer working in a vein
that recalled the sound of North America – Copland, perhaps, or a movie score from the
1960s – not innovative, nor Brazilian, but effective. Clearly the most engaging and
beautiful work of the evening was Vereda (2003) by Marisa Rezende, a piece with an
original voice, one that clearly communicated motion and emotion, and drew on the
resources of the orchestra, but through contrast, rather than presenting them all at once.
Rezende’s writing is a model of clarity, and she achieved a spacious, grand, exalting
effect. The concluding orchestral work was The Book of Imaginary Beings, for piano
and orchestra, by Eduardo Guimarães Alvares, making effective use of the winds, brass
and percussion (particularly the unison slams with the solo piano), and little use of the
strings. Interestingly, none of these six works revealed a concern with producing a
characteristically Brazilian statement.

The concluding section of the concert, with the orchestra replaced by percussion,
was from a different world, and might more effectively have been programmed as a
separate concert, with another three such works, since as a single concert the evening
would already have been well-filled with six pieces for orchestra. The extremely high
quality of performance from this final section also showed up the approximate qualities
of the committed but not always convincing renditions from the orchestra. Reflexio
(2006), by Marcos di Silva, for speaker, clarinet, cello, and percussion was well-made,
but too long for the scant quantity of material used (as Bilbo said “too much better
spread over not enough bread”). The concluding pieces well repaid the patience of the
listeners who had remained. Dialogues III (2006), by Roseane Yampolschi, was well-made and engaging, with the visible interaction between the percussionists as motives
traveled about the stage adding to the listening pleasure. Profusão 5 – Toccata (2007) by
Frederick Carrilho closed the evening with a bang, skillfully integrating percussion
elements from popular music into a clearly-structured large-scale work. Both here and
in the Dialogues the performance of the Dynamo Quartet was world-class, and worthy
of a DVD recording. Virtuoso, and extremely enjoyable. Bravo!

After the festive opening of the Bienal on Sunday, Monday’s concert began with
a much more intimate tone. First up was Insinuâncias (2006), by Jose Orlando Alves, a
work for two percussionists obsessively examining the possibilities of just a few
intervals and pitches – tritones and semitones. Alves generates both lyricism and
compelling structure from these limited materials. Next was GRLASHODIBZNTMEV
(no, I don’t know what it means either) by Andersen Viana for vibraphone and
marimba, a quiet, meditative work with indeterminate harmonies. The chamber music
which followed, Matérias by Marcelo Chiaretti, for snare drum and piccolo, was the
first truly off-putting work of the festival, with pedestrian material from the snares
combining with long tones from the piccolo, more a visual than a musical presence,
given that the snare drowned out anything in the piccolo’s low to middle range.
Memorably bad, but not so bad that it was good. Soprano Doriana Mendes shone in the
Diário do trapezista cego by Roberto Victorio, a piece combining a lyrical vocal line
with an extremely active and modern idiom for the accompanying guitar. Mendes’
delivered her poetry impeccably, with intonation that was absolutely dead-on. After a
not-so-memorable outing for three percussion (Oscuro lume, by Rogério Vasconcelos,
highlighting “dark”, i.e., lower and less brilliant instruments), came another particularly
rebarbative work, Vol – For Stanley, by Marcos Mesquita, with material of very little
interest stretched out to an unforgivable length. Were this a novel, the reader would not
persevere beyond the first chapter.

Soprano Mendes was heard in two similarly-scored works, by Fernando
Riederer (Campeche no Escuro) and Marcio Steuernagel (À margem oeste deste mar
), for soprano, violin, trombone, piano, percussion (Riederer) or soprano, violin,
trombone, trumpet, piano, percussion (Steuernagel). The former was much more
effective in that the voice’s incantations were contrasted with instrumental
interruptions, rather than combined with the ensemble. Mendes’ small but beautifully
produced sound was unable to compete with the open-bore trumpet of the Steuernagel,
but then few voices could. An ineffective compositional choice. The evening concluded
with a lengthy work for piano (Cartas Celestes XIII by Almeida Prado), in which the
virtuosity of the performer (Benjamin Cunha Neto) was more impressive than the
material, decidedly more earth-bound than its celestial program of stars and galaxies.

Tuesday evening at the Bienal was devoted primarily to electro-acoustic music.
The program began with Cancões dos dias vãos XII (Songs of empty days) by L.C.
Csekö, who by now is notorious for the quantity of theatrical smoke surrounding his
pieces at the various Bienals (I made sure to sit well back from the stage). Csekö’s
contribution was a sort of highly-amplified noise-rock for clarinet/bass clarinet, electric
guitar, acoustic piano, and percussion, with the performers doing their work in a haze
penetrated only by a couple of horizontal beams of light. No details could be perceived,
and it seemed that the entire effect would have more convincingly and theatrically
carried off by a death-metal band.

The rest of the first half was much more satisfying. Next up was the
electroacoustic Mas tenho consciência?….(2004) from Henrique Iwao, a slow-moving
stacking of non-equal tempered intervals moving at different rates of speed, producing a
rather Bachian effect (mutatis mutandis, of course, in the area of harmony). If Iwao’s
work was Baroque in tone, ReCubos v.1.2 (2007) by Marco Campello (also
electroacoustic) was almost operatic in tone, with an orchestral breadth, and sounds
suggesting brass, woodwinds, and bells against a background which suggested watery
depths. Curto Circuito (2007) by Jônatas Manzolli presented three percussionists
(wearing miner’s headlamps on a darkened stage) in a sort of neo-primitive idiom,
while images suggesting tribal art were projected on a screen behind them. The work
received a warm welcome from listeners. Concluding the first half were two
exceptionally whimsical works. The first featured percussionist Sergio Freire
performing his own music for percussion controller, with a sort of magic wand
controlling sounds from a single snare drum, and what I presume were samples
activated in real time. Freire’s self-effacing, almost nerdy presence, his motions in
controlling the percussion, and the music itself combined for a memorable moment.

Even more out of the ordinary was the percussion quartet by Siri (nom de plume
meaning “crab”) which followed, with performers dressed in snorkeling gear seated on
stage with plastic containers of water before them, beating on half-immersed pots and
pans. Original and amusing.

The second half began with two more electro-acoustic works. First, by Daniel
Quaranta, Pelos olhos de quem ve (In the eyes of the beholder), worked with a palette of
clanks, thuds and creaks, reminiscent of a transformed piano, moved through a more
diffuse moment, and ended abruptly. Tormenta em campos férteis (2006) by Fernando
Iazzetta gained momentum slowly, building to percussive rhythms – the counterpoint of
different materials heard at the same time from different points in space inside the hall
was very effective. Closing the evening was another quasi-political work by Jocy de
Oliveira, with a title in Tupi-Guarani (Nherana), which made use of pre-recorded
sounds from Brazilian Indians, combined with pseudo-indigenous motives from the live
ensemble onstage – oboe, clarinet, cello, electric guitar, and percussion. Seeing the
basin of water in front of the oboist, I waited with bated breath until the moment I knew
was coming when the instrument would be dunked. Not something you usually do with
a wooden instrument of quality. The oboist was also called upon to play two oboes at
once. There was the obligatory entrance of the berimbau (no instrument is more
evocative of Brazil). And the final gesture…should perhaps remain unrevealed, so as to
retain its impact.

Wednesday was a day of torrential rain in Rio de Janeiro, with as much as 15 cm
falling, with landslides, tunnels closed, streets flooded, and the government advising car
owners to leave them in their garages. By starting time for the fourth program of the
2007 Bienal streets were almost empty, but nevertheless a large number of hardy music-lovers managed to make it downtown. The concert focused once more on
electroacoustic works, opening with a programmatic piece referring to the killing of
composer Anton Webern by soldier Raymond Bell, after the former had stepped out for
a smoke (Raimundo e os sinos (2007), by Marcelo Carneiro de Lima). There were
plenty of bell-like tones, but otherwise an ill-informed listener would have no idea of
the content. In other words (2005/6), by Bruno Raviaro, for sax and prepared piano,
made a strong impression, particularly the cognitive disconnect between the visual of
pianist Tatiana Dumas executing a two-armed full smash on the keyboard, and the
sound that issued from the instrument. The wild flurry of notes that followed brought
piano and saxophone closer than one would have ever imagined. Perhaps the fact that
the work was based on a previous improvisation meant that it failed to hold one’s
interest for its entire length. Metagestos (2006), by Christine Dignart, was attractive,
with a sound world reminiscent of computer music and synthesizers of thirty or forty
years ago. One of the most striking works of the festival followed, a piece for soprano
and tape by Paulo Guicheney, Anjos são mulheres que escholheram a noite (2006)
(Angels are women who have chosen the night), with Doriana Mendes properly
celestial, an angelical presence amidst clouds of synthesized sound. The work was
dramatic and beautifully paced, with the recorded part supporting, not competing with
the soloist.

Estesia (2007), by Rodrigo Avellar de Muniagurria, which closed the first half,
combined clarinet harmonics and electroacoustic sounds in a contemplative way, but
the shockingly loud noise which concluded the piece (a sort of aural poke in the eye
with a sharp stick) revealed another composer who finds it difficult to make a
convincing ending in this genre.

The second half began with Lupanar by Marcus Alessi Bittencourt, in which the
mechanical sounds made it sound like this particular bordello was all work and no play.
The machine noise were punctuated by tenor or baritone register double-reedish beeps
and grunts (the male customers?), but the piece went on much, much, much too long.

The Kyrie & Gloria (2004) by Rodrigo Cicchelli Velloso which followed was another
of the highlights of the festival, with excellent singing from the chorus Sacra Vox,
under the direction of Valeria Mattos. The choral sounds were electronically
transformed and echoed, and the combination of choral writing (very effective) and
effects was evocative and beautiful.

Closing the concert was an evocation of the sea (Maresia, by Daniel Barreiro),
nicely done, almost cinematic in breadth, and a piece neither too brief nor too long, but
with an organic shape. The concluding work for heavily-amplified violin and tape
(Percussion Study V) was more a piece of theater (carried off with bravura by violinist
Mario da Silva) than a work with an intrinsically musical shape.

Thursday’s program returned to more traditional media, with the performing
responsibilities divided between the Quarteto Experimental (a clarinet quartet made up
of Batista Jr., Walter Jr., Marcelo Ferreira and Ricardo Ferreira), and the strings of the
Symphonic Orchestra of UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), under the baton
of André Cardoso. The first three works were given to the Quarteto, a group of
exceptional musicians playing at the highest level. Prenúncio (de um tormento)
(Foreshadowing of a suffering) (2007) by Gustavo Campos Guerreiro began slowly (a
mournful glimpse of what is to come), preparing for an outburst of quick patterns in the
upper voices while the lower voice continues in its slow motion. A fine work. The
extensive Clarinet Quartet (2007) by Thiago Sias revealed an impressively assured and
original voice in its writing (particularly for a twenty-five year old at the beginning of
his career), exploiting the possibilities of the instruments, with a predominantly lyrical
sound. The Criatura no. 1 (2004) by Yahn Wagner (in which the quartet was joined by
Waleska Beltrami on French horn) also made a strong impression, particularly the
motoric rhythms combining like clockwork, which, along with humorous tone, seemed
to this listener to draw on Stravinsky .

The strings of UFRJ then closed the first half with two strongly contrasting
works. The first were the Three Miniatures (2006) by Murillo Santos, slight in
dimensions, attractive, good-natured, well-made, conservative in idiom. The In
extremis, ad extremum
(2006) by Roberto Macedo Ribeiro, a passacaglia with moments
of beauty, and an obsessive intensity in the masterful stretto and ultimate deconstruction
of the material was an anguished crying-out which will remain in the memory.

After intermission came the Tres toques emotivos (2007) by Guilherme Bauer,
with a difficult chromatic and contrapuntal idiom which took the strings a bit beyond
their technical limits. Canauê, op. 22 (2006) by Dimitri Cervo was considerably more
approachable in idiom, beginning with a lyrical theme over string tremolos, and closing
with a quicker section combining “Brazilian” rhythms with a minimalist style.

The history and culture of Northeast Brazil then made an appearance with a
programmatic piece reflecting the popular literature about outlaws – Cordel no. 1: A
saga de Corisco
[the story of a famous bandit] by Liduino Pitombeira, the musical
idiom balancing between accessibility and modernity, between abstraction and imagery.
The program closed with another work, this time explicitly narrative, based on a poem
by Euclides da Cunha, in which the strings were joined by baritone Eladio Pérez-González and flutist Eduardo Monteiro, a sort of melodrama in which the vocal part
was very much more parlato than sung.

Friday at the Bienal was rather a mixed bag. The evening started with Levante
by Rodolfo Vaz Valente, a lengthy piece for clarinet solo, beginning in the lowest
register of the instrument and making its way upwards, in a clipped and disjunct idiom,
anti-lyrical, one might say, and hardly something one would dance to. Were it a piece of
verbiage, you might think of a lengthy disquisition on a rather dry subject. The piece
was virtuoso, taking advantage of the prodigious technique of Paulo Sergio Santos, but
not at all in-drawing. Next came a song cycle, Vida fu(n)dida, by Calimerio Soares, in
which the painstakingly-enunciated utterances of the soloist, Eládio Pérez-González,
were at odds with a flightier piano part, and two songs, Homenagens (2007), by Nestor
de Hollanda Cavalcanti, celebrating friends of the composer who had passed on, but in a
intimate vein making no sense to outsiders, like family pictures from someone else’s
family. These were followed by two exceedingly dry pieces (by Rogerio Constante, and
by Paulo de Tarso Salles) for guitar, which must have been well-played by the gifted
Paulo Pedrassoli, but neither of which held any appeal for these ears, seemingly making
a point of avoiding any of the normal seductions of the instrument. The first half closed
with two pedestrian choral works, adequately sung by the Brasil Ensemble – UFRJ, but
lacking any iota of innovation in style. All in all, eight pieces, with not one generating

The second half made the trip to the Sala worthwhile. It celebrated the 100th
anniversaries of the births of Jose Siqueira (1907-1985) and Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993), with the Quarteto Radamés Gnattali (Carla Rincón, João Carlos Ferreira, violins,
Fernando Thebaldi, viola, Paulo Santoro, cello) performing the Quartet no. 2 of the
former, and Quartet no. 3 of the latter. The Siqueira drew heavily on Northeastern folk
music, particularly in the stunningly beautiful and lyrical Andante. The Guarnieri was
more modern (violently urban) in its outer movements, but also drew on Northeastern
idioms in the central heart of the work, the Lento. The playing of the Quarteto in these
works brought tears to the eyes. Not to be missed.

My final evening at the 2007 Bienal was Saturday, lamentably, although three
more concerts beckoned, but professional responsibilities meant that I needed to fly
back to the USA on Sunday. In previous Bienals, the festivities had started on Friday
evenings, meaning that fans from outside Rio could fly in, spend two weekends
sandwiched around a week of concerts, and get back to work by Monday morning. No
such luck this year, and something I consider poor planning by the organizers (of
which, more later).

The program began with a work for two pianos (performed with verve by Sara
Cohen and Zélia Chueke) – Agua-Forte (2006), by Ricardo Tacuchian, a piece in a
surprisingly conservative idiom, with figuration and rhythm quite regular in a free
opening section which led to a fugato on what sounded like an “Indian” theme. There
were details which recalled, of all people, Gershwin.

Three choral works followed, in performances by the Coral Harte Vocal. Both
the modest dimensions and ambitions of the works themselves, and the renditions by
the chorus, reinforced my impression that choral music in Brazil is an area susceptible
to considerable growth, and one in which achievements are yet below what is the norm
for other genres in Brazil, and below the norm for top choruses elsewhere in the world.
The chorus, made up of young, seemingly untrained voices, produced a small sound that
barely carried to where I was sitting.

The first half ended with a substantial and quite attractive piece for a traditional
ensemble, the Quartet 2006 for piano quartet by Ernest Mahle, capably performed by
Sara Cohen, Ricardo Amado, José Volker, and Marcelo Salles. The work is
predominantly retrospective and lyrical in tone, with a striking middle movement,
Andantino cromatico, played sempre pp.

Rather than end this panorama of Brazilian music on a sour note, I will let the
first be last, and the last first. The Toccata Metal (2007) for solo cello by Yanto Laitano
received a virtuoso performance by Paulo Santoro, but to these ears it was naught but
sound and fury signifying nothing. I can’t imagine wanting to hear it again. Does the
“metal” from the title refer to “heavy metal”? Hard to say. Ambitious but unsatisfying
was Pathos (2006) for a quartet of clarinet, viola, cello and piano by Bruno Angelo,
with many unisons perhaps intended to be dramatic, but which chiefly showed that the
young players were incapable of playing in tune, particularly the lamentable cello,
excruciatingly out in its high register. Ouch!

Far more rewarding were the two works which opened the second half,
Celebração (2006) by Maria Helena Rosas Fenandes, quite original in voice and dark in
tone, with a religious program, but one which was not usually audible in the music,
except for the evocation of animal voices in the opening Cântico das criaturas.
Particularly striking was the Paisagem do inverno (Winter Landscape) (2006), by Harry
Crowl, beautifully played by Batista Jr., clarinet, Vinicius Amaral, violin, and Luciano
Magalhães, piano, evoking first winter storms, and then an a chilly, but more tranquil,
calm, with a harmonically static section leading to a long, long, long final adagio,
masterfully captured by the trio. Captivating!

Some closing thoughts: each Bienal reveals the richness of contemporary music
composition in Brazil, but also brings home to me how little this beautiful music is
known internationally. The Bienal should be an opportunity for the country to show the
best of what it produces to the world, not simply an opportunity for composers and
performers to meet. For the Bienal to fulfill a broader function, it needs to have a firmer
organizational and funding base, a base that would allow the festival to be scheduled
years, rather than months, in advance, and should make a concerted effort to attract
music-lovers from around the world to visit, including the international press. It is
shocking how the Brazilian press itself can ignore this important event, with no prior
coverage, and almost no reportage of the concerts of the festival. Music is in Brazil is
vital – the composers and performers for this festival were almost all in their forties,
thirties, twenties – and it communicates, but it needs help from the media to get its
message across.

Tom Moore

image_description=Heitor Villa-Lobos