Program Note: Gracias a la vida

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published December 3, 2023

Four decades ago I found myself at a week-long residency on the Princeton campus, studying song repertoire with a roster of legendary recitalists. At one of those master classes I heard my first Argentinean art song—“La rosa y el sauce,” by Carlos Guastavino. After the session I practically tackled the woman who had just sung it, begging her for a copy of this magical piece of music. That was my gateway drug, leading to an exploration of Spanish-language song that has grown more intense every year.

Argentinean and Brazilian song has been a mainstay of NYFOS’s musical diet since our first season. Tonight we’re casting an even wider net, including music from Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador.  The title song is by the beloved Chilean songwriter Violeta Parra (1917-1967): “Gracias a la vida,” an anthem that has taken on the status of a worldwide classic. Using the sounds of indigenous Chilean folk music, Parra fashioned a universal musical language, to which she added lyrics of elemental power. She was also respected as a visual artist: Parra was the first Latin American ever to receive a solo show at the Louvre.

Sadly, her iconic status is also due to her death, a suicide at age 49. Her life was in a downward spiral. A bold artistic initiative failed, and her lover, the flautist Gilbert Favre, abandoned her.  In a state of utter desolation, she shot herself in the head. In the light of her impending death, her last song— “Gracias a la vida,” or “Thanks be to life”—takes on extra layers of meaning. It is at once a suicide note, a coded farewell, and a bittersweet tribute to the beauties of being alive.

Tonight’s Peruvian ambassador is Chabuca Granda (1920-1983), who became one of her country’s most influential spokespeople. She took her local criollo music seriously, bringing the rhythms and cadences of a working-class genre out of the barrio and into the upper echelons of society. Her rhythmic dexterity can be breathtaking. In Chabuca’s hands, something as simple as a waltz becomes fascinating and multifaceted, with the simple ¾ bars subdivided in multiple ways. Her song “La flor de la canela,” the unofficial anthem of her hometown Lima, might be her most famous. But I have a special place in my heart for “Fina estampa,” a three-chord song of dizzying charm which she wrote as a tribute to her father.

Unlike Chabuca Granda, Ecuadorian Gerardo Guevara (b. 1930) went abroad to study music in Paris with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, teacher of Ned Rorem, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and dozens of others. In 1972, after a 12-year stay, Guevara returned home where his career as a composer and educator took off rapidly. Incorporating Andean melodies and rhythms into classical structures, Guevara’s music runs the gamut from ultra-modern to the simple purity of tonight’s pasillo, “Despedida.”

César Parreño is passionate about his homeland’s premiere composer. He writes: “Ive sung for Guevara back in Guayaquil!” As for “Despedida,” he explains:“The pasillo is the quintessential Ecuadorian folk song. Usually in ¾ time, it typically has upbeat melodies and rhythms, along with very sad poetry—so the magical thing about the pasillois that its an odd, mercurial mixture of sad and happy. I actually won a pasillo competition in high school, and performed many, many of them in my teens. The special thing about ‘Despedida’ is that Gerardo Guevara brought classical sensibilities to this pasillo, exchanging the ‘happy music’ of the traditional pasillo for an honest, melancholic melody, and accompaniment for piano instead of guitar.”

Shelén Hughes also brought along a song from her home country, Bolivia: a cueca called “Cantarina,” by Willy Claure (b. 1962) and Milton Contez (b. 1961). Claure is a hugely popular singer-songwriter who has devoted himself to bringing the traditions of Bolivian folk music to audiences in the Americas and Europe. Like the tango, the cueca is a dance with a long, mysterious pedigree reaching back to the nineteenth century. In 1979 Augusto Pinochet declared it the national dance of Chile, but the dictatorial president couldn’t claim it as his country’s exclusive property—Peru and Bolivia also call it their own. About “Cantarina,” Shelén Hughes explained: “This is a beautiful and special piece, It is a traditional courtship dance in Bolivian folk tradition. I used to perform this all over the world as a Bolivian folk dancer before I sang!”

Venezuelan composer Juan Bautista Plaza (1898-1965) tossed off “El curruchá” in 1928. This irresistible patter song became a big hit, somewhat to Plaza’s chagrin. It is unique among Plaza’s works for its direct, popular appeal and its pure joropo style. He called it “a sin of my youth,” and while it bears little relation to the sober liturgical pieces for which he became famous, Plaza’s lively chamber music does have some of this song’s rhythmic verve. This folk dance, and the music that accompanies it, are popular in Venezuela and Colombia. Based on Afro-Creole rhythms, the joropo casts a spell over both listeners and dancers with its vigorous syncopation.

The intense colors and rhythms of Argentinean song are like catnip to me, and we’re offering songs from three of her finest musicians. My admiration for Carlos Guastavino (1912–2000) has only grown with the passing of the decades. While his avant-garde colleagues were busy scoring points with the press, Guastavino remained true to his belief in melody and simplicity—his faith in tonality amounted to a passion. Naturally he had his detractors, who were sure that twelve-tone music would run roughshod over Guastavino in a matter of decades. But Guastavino and his many fans seem to have won out. No one ever seems to get enough of his elegant lyricism. He wrote between 500 and 600 songs, of which only 170 or so have been published. Clearly there is a lot left to discover about this beloved songwriter. The more I play his songs, the more I feel he earns his sobriquet, “The Schubert of the Pampas.”

Guastavino once said that his idea of success was hearing his music sung or whistled in the streets by strangers—people who would have no idea he had written the tune they loved. His life echoed this desire to be known only by his art; he lived austerely, shunning not just the spotlight but even the company of friends and admirers. He also guarded the secret of his love life, though it appears he had a relationship with the poet Francisco Silva Valdés, the lyricist for one of Guastavinos most famous songs, “Pueblito, mi pueblo.”

While best known for his gentle lyricism in songs like “Las puertas de la mañana” and “Anhelo,” Guastavino had fire in him as well. In “Hermano,” the poet Hamlet Lima Quintana writes of the artists responsibility to “sing the blood of his history” for his nation. He evokes Argentinas landscape, which maintained its robust beauty through decades of political horrors. Guastavino composed a pair of driving refrains bracketed by three brooding recitatives, perfectly capturing Quintana’s mysterious eloquence.

I have a soft spot in my heart for the music of Carlos López Buchardo (1881–1948). He was a native of Buenos Aires, but unlike Guastavino, he completed his musical studies in Paris, where his teacher was Albert Roussel. When he came home to Buenos Aires, López Buchardo took on the massive task of bringing musical education to Argentina through an escalating series of administrative assignments—director of the Teatro Colón, founder of the National Conservatory, and a government post as National Director of Music. His high-profile day jobs left him comparatively little time to compose, and his output is somewhat meager in comparison to his extremely prolific colleagues. 

Yet what beauty he created! The combination of quintessentially Argentinean rhythms with the sweet glaze of French harmony gives his music a rich sensuality unlike any other Argentinean composer. López Buchardo had a live-in muse: his wife, the charismatic and temperamental soprano Brígida Frías. She premiered the lions share of his canciones, including the ones well hear tonight. Like her husband, she was passionate about establishing a school of Argentinean art song, and devoted much of her career to promoting the repertoire of her countrymen.

The two became a power couple in Argentinean cultural circles. Alas, her passions did not extend only to her husband, and there were always rumors about their somewhat troubled marriage. But of Carloss affections for Brígida there was never any doubt. His tender music is like a love song to his gifted, flighty, wife.

Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992), the creator of nuevo tango, is the polar opposite of López Buchardo. Eschewing sentimentality in favor of aggressiveness, Piazzolla fused elements of jazz with the chiseled counterpoint of Bach to bring tango to its greatest heights. Traditionalists squawked, but the world embraced him with open arms.  

The irresistible, dark fire of Piazzollas music has been a magnet for both raspy tangueros and classical heavyweights like Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Gidon Kremer. While his tangos may smack of whiskey and nicotine, they have impeccable credentials. As a young man, Piazzolla took lessons with the renowned composer Alberto Ginastera in Buenos Aires by day, while poring over the scores of Béla Bartók by night. When he was 33, he began to tire of his success as a composer of tangos, and traveled to Paris to work with Nadia Boulanger, who was soon to be Guevara’s muse. For weeks he presented her with his classical works. She reserved judgment until—at her request—he finally showed her a tango called “Triunfal.” Boulanger knew instantly that tango was his true calling, and with her encouragement Piazzolla committed himself to rebuilding it with colors and gestures it had never before known. 

Piazzolla’s music bears the traces of all of his influences—Gardel, Bach, Ginastera, Bartók, and Boulanger. But its macho edge is also an expression of his character. Piazzolla was a pugnacious man with a short temper and a ready fist. “Never wait for someone to hit you,” counseled his father. “You hit first!” While his songs are a bit more lyrical than his aggressive instrumental writing, they retain his pugnacious machismo.

If the words “Brazilian song” make you think of insinuating sambas and languid romance, youre not mistaken. This is one stereotype that blessedly contains a great deal of truth. Certainly, the music of Brazil embraces many styles, from the hugely successful Italian-style operas of Carlos Gomes in the nineteenth century to the snarls of the avant-garde movement of the l970s, led by composers like Gilberto Mendes. But even at fast tempos, Brazilian music has a way of remaining languid and sensual.

One of Brazil’s earliest musical successes was Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), who brightened the movie theaters and dance halls of his native Rio de Janeiro with an alluring repertoire of piano pieces—waltzes, sambas, galops, fox-trots, and Schottishes. The American composer William Bolcom described him as “a cross between Chopin and Gottschalk” because of his fusion of bel canto lyricism with Creole rhythms. Often credited as the inventor of the tango, Nazareth was one of the first white composers to incorporate African rhythms in his music, which eventually laid the foundations for ragtime and jazz. He was not known as a  songwriter, but a few of his salon pieces come with a set of lyrics slyly printed after the double bar—an open invitation to turn his piano music into graceful, if somewhat rangy, songs.

Everyone knows at least one piece by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959): his Bachianas Brasileiras #5 has been sung by sopranos ranging from Renée Fleming to Joan Baez. The rest of Villa-Lobosmusic is starting to get heard more often these days, and there is a lot to discover. Over a long career, he unleashed his creativity on every musical form—symphonies, chamber pieces, opera, songs, and even a Broadway musical. Born in Rio de Janeiro, he was largely self-taught as a composer. He started out as an itinerant musician, earning a living as a cellist in cinemas and cafés. He absorbed the folk music of the Brazilian towns and the tribal music of the jungles, out of which he forged his own musical voice. He was fond of saying that his first harmony teacher was “the map of Brazil.” Darius Milhaud and Artur Rubinstein were instrumental in launching his career; they brought him to Paris in 1923, where the French public took him to their hearts.

Villa-Lobos’s music ranges from the sweet to the spiky; both of our songs today fall into the first category. Villa-Lobos subtitled  “Evocação, “Ensaio para a canção popular,” or “an attempt at a popular song.” But this no mere “attempt”— Villa-Lobos hit the bull’s eye with a melody that is sure to become an ear worm. His “Lundú da Marquesa de Santos” has a similar subtitle, “Evoking the era of 1822.” This tune uses sambas in two contrasting tempi, slow/sexy and quick/driving.  A young man laments the departure of his beloved. But with music this seductive you know he won’t be alone for long.

Folk music and art music collide in Cinco cancôes Nordestinas do Folclore Brasileiro by Ernani Costa Braga(1888-1948), five fancy settings of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian work songs, street songs, and prayers. Composing was something of a sideline for Braga, who led an active career as a conductor, teacher, pianist, musicologist, and writer. This song cycle is Braga’s calling card, a work that has stood the test of time through iconic recordings by the Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão and the Spanish mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza.

“Capim di pranta” is a work song from the state of Alagoas in northeastern Brazil. The music is a jongo, a dance form of African origin which had an important place in Brazil’s Black culture. It was used to celebrate births and marriages, to send the dead to the promised bliss of heaven, and to communicate secret information among enslaved people. In this jongo the workers are rejoicing because the Queen has put an end to their job of pulling up weeds, a task which needed constant repetition as the weeds unfailingly grew back. Braga dresses up this traditional tune with a brilliant, strenuous accompaniment. When I’m done playing it I feel as if I too had been pulling up weeds in the fields all morning.

Tonight marks the NYFOS debut of Brazilian composer Cláudio Santoro (1919-1989), whom I first encountered on baritone Paulo Szót’s double-CD album of his songs, Jardim noturno. Since I first encountered him as a songwriter, it came as something of a shock to read that Santoro was best known for his instrumental music, including fourteen symphonies and seven string quartets. Santoro’s international career as a conductor made him a spokesperson for classical music of his home country, whisking him from Bonn to Moscow, Paris to Bucharest, His songs run the gamut from romantic to rhythmic, gravitating to a warm, dense tonal palette. Little wonder that Szót called his album “Nocturnal garden,” an apt image for the richness of Santoro’s harmonic world. César Parreño and I fell in love with “Acalanto da rosa” (The rose’s lullaby), two minutes of Brazilian magic.

Since my first concerts of South American music with Bernarda Fink and Christopher Trakas, I’ve been guided by many wonderful colleagues who increased my understanding of the repertoire. Tonight the Bolivian soprano Shelén Hughes and the Ecuadorian tenor César Andrés Parreño join that distinguished roster of artists, shining their own special light on these songs. The world may be in a state of chaos, but when these two artists sing South American music they create an oasis of peace and harmony. We’re thrilled to share that beauty, both earthy and elegant, with you. ¡Buen provecho!

 

We’d like to extend our thanks to Jen Pitt, who not only coached the Portuguese texts but also took time to shed light on Brazilian culture. And thanks to baritone Victor Torres, whose magnificent performances of Lopez Buchardo’s music are a constant inspiration.

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Gracias a la vida will be performed on Tuesday, December 5, 8pm at Merkin Hall. Tickets and program info

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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