Program Notes: The Dance of the White Indian

This concert of music by three South American composers embodies separate, vital musical traditions that found fertile ground in Latin America between the wars: the native music of the Indians, the African music imported with black slaves from the 16th century, and the music of the Western European tradition. The vitality of this menage is best exemplified in Brazil and in the music of Heitor Villa Lobos. According to this master, the artist "must select and transmit the material given him by his people." While ethno-musicological forays into remote regions play an important part in the selection process, the three composers paid close attention to the music of the people. Each used as raw material the dances of tribespeople and the urban Carnival, the folk-songs of the local peasants and the sophisticated, smoky laments of the cafe and nightclub. The transmission process in this concert gains as much from Ricardo Peres' idiomatic playing as it does from the academic and picturesque compositions of these composers.

The Dance of the White Indian (Dansa do Indo Branco) is probably the most successful piece in the Ciclo Brasileiro, which Villa Lobos composed in 1936- 37. The movement incorporates dances of the north Brazilian jungle Indians the composer visited in the 1930's. Villa Lobos skillfully blends Indian drums and chants into a virtuoso composition, heard here in a virtuoso performance by Peres.

The fourth cycle of Bachianas Brasileiras of Villa Lobos represents what lies beyond the gates of the Rainforest. The Preludio, though it is formally akin to the stately openings of a Bach suite, places us squarely in a most un- European setting. Here we have an atmospheric rendering of a mysterious twilight world. "The ear," says Nietzsche in Psychological Observations, "could have evolved as greatly as it has only in the night and twilight of obscure caves and woods . . . " The sensitivity of Villa Lobos' ear is apparent to those who have experienced the perpetual sound - something between white noise and pandemonium, but always alive - of the rain forest.

A major player in the second piece of the suite, a Coral (chorale) entitled "The Song of the Jungle," is the Araponga - a tiny bird whose persistent percussive calls ring through the forest and the song. Other birds fly in and out, with the strongly folkloric dance themes always placed in their physical setting. "More the expression of feeling than painting" is Beethoven's phrase, referring to his programmatic 6th Symphony. This is often, and usually admiringly, quoted, since the emotional element in music remains at least partially abstract. But the quite realistic painting of Villa Lobos' suite has a validity of its own.

Villa Lobos peoples his landscape in the last two movements of the suite. Natives and mamelucos (mestizos) appear with a folk-song Aria, while early settlers of northeastern Brazil show up in the final Dansa, a popular folk- dance entitled "Tiny steps." The Aria is a prayerful lament, sad but dignified. The keynote is one of resignation. The Dansa, rhythmic and alive, brings an element of the erotic (not long absent in the music of Villa Lobos) to the scene. The mood of the entire suite, in a performance such as this one, suspends us perfectly in a very special world. Its formal antecedents in the Baroque dance-suite are not obvious or intrusive, though they provide both a formal backbone and an ironic counterpoint to the lush foliage of the forest and the rich heritage of folklore.

The choros #5 (subtitled "Alma Brasileira" - "The Soul of Brazil"), though the earliest to be composed, is perhaps the heart of the program, and might be classed as Villa Lobos' most successful composition for piano. The choros is a samba-like folkloric dance taking its name from the choros, an ensemble of street musicians. Villa Lobos makes use of its fluid form to present the idioms and themes he will develop in all of his later piano music. Here we find a microcosm of themes and rhythms that evolve from one another, from wistful songs to more dynamic, rough and somewhat primitive dances.

In his Third Sonatina, Camargo Guarnieri takes raw materials that are very similar to those of Villa Lobos, and serves them up in an abstract, ironic way, more in the European tradition of Stravinsky, Bartok or Milhaud. While rhythm is central to the piano music of Villa Lobos, it plays a graciously ironic role for Guarnieri. This is evident in the first movement in particular, with its syncopation, its neo-classical, contrapuntally brittle textures, its witty, sardonic, jazz-age sensibility. This movement is a tour-de-force of musical syncretism: it melds the same folkloric and formal characteristics we saw in Villa Lobos with an infectious "swing."

The second movement is almost a parody of a slow movement from a Mozart sonata: it is mysterious and oneiric (something between dreamlike and nightmarish), whose rhythmic instability portrays a surreal landscape. The third movement is a fugue with a choros character, staccato and somewhat brisk: a witty contrapuntal improvisation in dialogue form.

The Sonatina is compactly written "in the G clef," in a narrow, roughly 4- octave range fairly high on the keyboard. This is about the same range as that of Bach, lending the piece its neo-Baroque air. It also emphasizes a roughness quite different from the broad range of Villa Lobos (which results in a more lyrical, pianistic sound that reminds one of Chopin or Rachmaninoff.) The Guarnieri Sonatina is a neglected gem of the piano literature. One hopes that this recording will signal new interest in the prolific output of this recently deceased composer.

The modern tango, the dance that took Europe's ballrooms by storm in 1915, has African and European roots, but it was really born in the slums of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Its character notoriously transcends culture, though - the dance can be seen as either a representation of the sexual act or a display of machismo. As Jorge Luis Borges demonstrates in his essay "History of the Tango," the original tango was always danced by two men, and it was as much a game of power and dominance as its companion- piece, the knife-fight. The dance took on a less ambiguously heterosexual role in Rudolph Valentino's 1920 Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and with many florid excrescences it has continued to the self-parody of today.

The essence of the tango, besides it sensuality, is in its contrast of a masculine, rhythmic first theme and a more feminine, singing second theme. Piazolla's themes are special for their vitality and their beauty; the arrangements (Ricardo Peres' own) emphasize both a virtuoso character and the sad and sensuous nature of this haunting, ravishing music.

Dean Frey August 6, 1993