APRIL 2016: Argentina's Most International Composer Gets His Global MomentAPRIL 2016: Argentina's Most International Composer Gets His Global Moment
BERLIN — The Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera is well established as a leading voice of Latin America. Much like Bela Bartok in Hungary or Aaron Copland in the United States, his synthesis of native folk elements into complex musical forms paved the way for the development of concert music in his native country.
But Ginastera’s legacy transcends the borders of Argentina. Not only did he resist and eventually flee his country’s authoritarian regime, but his catalogue of over one hundred works — many of which had their premiere on American soil — occupies a major place in 20th-century music history.
This season, to commemorate the centenary of Ginastera’s birth, orchestras around the world are delving into not just well-known compositions such as the Harp Concerto or “Estancia” Dances but his entire opus. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony and Boston Symphony are some of the institutions to have included prominent programs. There are also performances as far away as Taipei, Taiwan, and Katowice, Poland.
Perhaps most significant, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires is presenting a major survey of the composer’s work, from his last opera, “Beatrix Cenci,” to the piano sonatas.
The Teatro Colón will host a major survey of Ginastera’s work this year. “It is a moment to show off the best of our culture,” the theater’s general director, Darío Lopérfido, said.
For Darío Lopérfido, the Teatro Colón’s general director, the program is a source of great pride given that two of Ginastera’s three operas had their premiere not in Buenos Aires but in Washington. His second opera, “Bomarzo,” was initially banned at home for “obsessive reference to sex, violence and hallucination.” His “Beatrix Cenci” did not receive its Argentine premiere until 1992, nine years after Ginastera’s death.
“Ginastera is our most international composer,” Mr. Lopérfido said by phone from Buenos Aires. “Argentina is a country with a lot of discussion and fights. But not in this case. It is a moment to show to the world the best of our culture.”
Musical life across the country is indebted to Ginastera, from the tango music of Astor Piazzolla, his first and most famous student, to the Gilardo Gilardi Conservatory of Music in La Plata. The Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales, or CLAEM, which he founded to expose Latin American composers to international trends in musical modernism, bred influential figures such as the recently deceased Gerardo Gandini, who also played piano in Piazzolla’s “Nuevo Tango” sextet.
But political conditions during Ginastera’s lifetime forced him to turn abroad. In 1945, with the help of Copland, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to the United States. It was around this time that his music shifted from less explicitly nationalist material such as the competitive dances of gauchos, or mestizo cowboys, to more abstract, spiritual sources in a period which he himself called “subjective nationalism.”
Following Perón’s ouster in 1955, Ginastera flourished as both a composer and educator, but just over a decade later came the rise of the violent Onganía dictatorship. When the opera “Bomarzo” was censored, in 1967, Ginastera responded by imposing a ban of his music across Buenos Aires. In 1971, the same year in which the CLAEM was forced to shut down, he left to settle in Geneva.
While the composer remained deeply connected to his home country, he would start to embrace a broader sense of Spanish identity in his music. And as early as the 1950s, parallel to his activities at the CLAEM, he had started to integrate stylistic elements as disparate as twelve-tone music and magical realism. Late-period works such as the Harp Concerto maintain rhythmic vitality while creating eerie, modernist atmospheres.
The Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, who conducts several performances of Ginastera this season, said by phone from London that the composer “translated what was around him,” absorbing influences from Ravel and Stravinsky to Copland while communicating the rhythms of the Argentine countryside in a clear fashion.
Ginastera’s instrumentation and rhythms in turn impacted Copland. The musicologist and Ginastera scholar Deborah Schwartz-Kates has documented a reciprocal influence between Copland’s ballet “Rodeo” and “Estancia,” a ballet about the life of the gauchos.
“Both cultivate pastoral tropes of open landscapes,” she said by phone from Miami, citing “lean, widely spaced harmonies which represent ideas of openness, space and, metaphorically, the ideal of freedom upon which their respective countries were based.”
The explicitly Argentinean themes in Ginastera’s music may have typecast him as a certain type of composer, however, even in his later period of aesthetic experimentation. “A piece of dodecaphonic music doesn’t necessarily conform to certain stereotypes of what Latin-ness might mean,” said Ms. Schwartz-Kates.
The American mezzo-soprano Joanna Simon in “Bomarzo” in at the New York City Opera in 1967. The work, Ginastera’s second opera, was initially banned in his home country of Argentina for “obsessive reference to sex, violence and hallucination.” Credit New York City Opera
His Violin Concerto, which the New York Philharmonic commissioned for its inaugural season at Lincoln Center in 1963, quotes everyone from Paganini to Shostakovich within instrumental textures at once distinctly Bartok-inspired and highly personal. “The states of mind are very direct,” said the violinist Michael Barenboim, who performs the work with three different orchestras this season. “When it wants to express anger, you can tell. At the same time, everything is formally strict and structured.”
Politics have also played a role in the reception of Ginastera’s music. After leaving for Switzerland, his network in the Americas weakened. Although he lived to see “Bomarzo” performed in Buenos Aires in 1972, the composer did not receive acclaim from his home government for the opera that he considered his greatest work.
While Ginastera’s music never fell out of circulation, the perception that he was more international than Argentine did not always work in his favor. “He occupied a gray area where he was considered too famous to be Argentine in Argentina but, in the rest of the world, too Argentine to be famous,” Ms. Schwartz-Kates said.
Thanks to widening activities in scholarship over the past decade, there is an opportunity to reassess the importance of his music. For the centennial performances this year, Ginastera’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, prepared new editions of several major works.
And as fate would have it, Argentina’s recently elected President Mauricio Macri has set out to reverse decades of Perónist politics. An inaugural concert for Mr. Macri at the Teatro Colón last December included a performance of the “Estancia” suite.
“It’s a symbolic moment,” Mr. Lopérfido said. “Citizens have the feeling that Argentina will be friends with the different countries. It’s a moment of hope.”
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