OCTOBER 2016 | Antonio Estévez Aponte Centenary (1916-1988): A Listeners' GuideOCTOBER 2016 | Antonio Estévez Aponte Centenary (1916-1988): A Listeners' Guide
By RAY PICOT
Despite the relatively small number of commercial recordings to his name, Antonio Estévez was an important figure in Venezuelan music, as we have already covered in our January Newsletter. In brief, he was an exact contemporary of Ginastera, who also after studies in his home country, went to further his education in the United States, including Tanglewood. He was an accomplished woodwind player, and for a time played the oboe in the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra. He founded two choirs in the 1940s but made his name as a conductor and composer. The music he wrote initially adopted a folk-inspired nationalist style, typical of his generation, but he became interested in electronic music, and in 1961 travelled to Europe and lived in London and then Paris for 10 years. It was here that Estévez produced Cromovibrafonia (available to listen on Youtube) which proved to be a key turning point in his career, and he contributed music for Expo ’67 at Montreal. He later returned to Caracas and founded the Studio of Musical Phonology.
Whilst Estévez’s electro-acoustic music remains unrepresented in commercial recordings, it is the music of his nationalist period that has unsurprisingly attracted the greatest attention. Whilst there were a number of his contemporaries that were developing a recognisable national musical style, Estévez is viewed as the most influential contributor. In addition, the handful of works that have achieved distinction amongst the corpus of 20th-century Latin American music are recorded or at least can be heard in live recordings.
During his studies with Vincente Emilio Sojo in Caracas, Estévez, like other pupils, was asked to write an orchestral suite and in 1942 produced the three-movement Suite llanera, which he conducted. However, Estévez was critical of the work as a whole and only retained the central movement, a highly atmospheric and evocative piece with more than a hint of impressionism, entitled Mediodía en el llano (Noon on the Prairie). It has retained its popularity and the classic recording by Eduardo Mata and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra is available on Sono Luminus 90179. However, this 1993 issue has been superseded by Gustavo Dudamel on DG (477 7457), who draws a ravishing sound picture from a later Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in an altogether unforgettable debut album entitled Fiesta.
As with Ginastera, the prairie and its cowhands proved to be an inspiration for Estévez, and in the late 1940s, whilst in the United States, he started sketching what was to become his most iconic work Cantata criolla about the same time as he was working on his Concerto for Orchestra. This undeservedly-neglected work was completed in 1948/9 - written in a neo-classical style, it is a tautly-drawn baroque-inspired work lasting just under 20 minutes. An impressive opening 'Toccata' leads to an inventive and well-developed 'Passacaglia', concluding with a 'Ricercare'. Alas, we have no current commercial recordings but there is a good live performance on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0Yj6D7R2iE) given by the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra under Felipe Izcaray. The fact that the composer thought highly of this work is evidenced by a long-deleted double LP recording he made in Venezuela where it is accompanied by the piano pieces 17 Piezas infantiles and the Cantata criolla. The only other major orchestral work you can listen to, again on Youtube, is the concert overture of 1963, Obertura sesquicentaria.
In its time, the Cantata criolla, subtitled 'Florentino, el que cantó al diablo' ('Florentino, the one who sang to the devil') achieved great popularity throughout the Americas, following its premiere in 1954, and continues to attract musicians. Interestingly in 2010, Gustavo Dudamel made a multi-media rendition of the Cantata the centre-piece of his opening festival for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Scored for chorus, orchestra, tenor and baritone, the work is inspired by a poem by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba which recounts a mythical verbal dual between the llanero, Florentino, and the Devil, a tale deeply rooted in the Venezuelan popular spirit. It is an extraordinary virtuosic and dramatic piece written in an immediately identifiable folk-inspired style with a symphonic structure that develops the strands of ideas the composer explores. The finale is operatic in style and creates an unforgettable impact live. Some very good performances can be seen on the web but the recording to have is the only one presently available, by Eduardo Mata, with the Simón Bolívar Synphony Orchestra, Schola Cantorum de Caracas, Orfeón Universitario Simón Bolívar, Idwer Alvarez (tenor) and William Alvarado (baritone) on Sono Luminus 80101.
Whilst we await the intended release of Estévez’ piano music by that tireless champion of Venezuelan music, Clara Rodríguez, his most popular work in this genre, the 17 Piezas infantiles of 1958 occasionally attracts pianists, and currently some excerpts are included in recordings by Gabrierla Montero and Elena Riu. These evocative miniatures (the suite lasts about 20’) draws on native folk elements and though they are not virtuosic they are intrinsically interesting. For example 'Ancestro 1' is a homage to St John and the African ancestors who are celebrated by popular feasts in Venezuela. Gabriela Montero in her excellent recital, So Latina (EMI Classics 6 41144 2), gives us a tantalising extract from the suite with 'Angelito negro', 'Ancestro 1’, ‘Ancestro 2’ and the lively ‘Toccatino', whilst equally-atmospheric renditions are offered by Elena Riu in her Somm disc Salsa Nueva (SOMMCD237) of just the two ‘Ancestro’ pieces. Once more for the curious, Youtube offers a recording of the entire work (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CL5JWiw1U4E) by Abi Romero.
Lastly there are a few songs and choral pieces available in anthologies, of which the acapella Mata del ánima sola is noteworthy. Despite the short measure of available recordings we must hope that more musicians are drawn to the music of this highly original composer, and not just in his centenary year.
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