Chilean composers in the USA for the first time

Chilean composers in the USA for the first time

Philip Sonnichsen

Literatura Chilena en el Exilio. N 14 Abril 1980

A recital by Chilean pianist Alfonso Montecino at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre Sunday night concluded Jornadas Culturales Chilenas, a week which also included a conference on Chilean literature and art, and a peña, an evening of nueva canción. Montecino's recital was devoted exclusively to piano works of his countrymen.

Montecino is one of a significant number of prominent Chilean musicians and cultural figures away from his homeland. Although the biographical sketch in the excellent program notes point out that he has played Bach's Well-tempered Clavier twenty times and that during the last eight years he has devoted himself to the interpretation of the complete cycle of Beethoven's 32 Sonatas, it is significant and particularly satisfying to note that the pianist has not abandoned his country and the music of his countrymen but had developed and maintained a significant repertoire of the music of Chilean composers. At the same time, since the entire program was read from score and did not touch on the standard repertoire, it is not completely fair to make an overall evaluation of the pianist in these pages.

The recital, which covered fifty years of Chilean piano composition, opened, appropriately with Enrique Soro's (1884-1954) Andante Appassionato which probably dates from 1906, according to composer and musicologist Dr. Juan Orrego-Salas, who offered excellent and animated commentary before each half of the two-part program. Although the program notes give a date of 1915, Orrego-Salas noted that the confusion in dates is probably due to the number of versions written by the composer, a reflection of the wide popularity of the piece, including a version for organ, one for violin and piano, another for voice and piano. Soro is clearly a product of his age and the prevailing attitude in Chilean society (as in much of Latin America at the time) toward what was 'good music.' Soro studied in Italy (as was proper) with Pietro Mascagni (composer of the opera Cavalleria rusticana) and although Soro himself never completed an opera, the Andante Appassionato clearly reflects a musical style and a romanticism associated with late nineteenth century Italian opera.

With Pedro Humberto, Allende (1885-1959) whose Tonadas Nos, 6, 7 and 9 of 1921 followed on the program, the beginnings of a sense of Chilean nationalism are heard. As in most Latin American countries, the folk (as opposed to indigenous) traditions draw largely from Spanish sources, remolded in a new environment, the indigenous influences being minimized for political as well as cultural reasons. Influences of the cueca (or zamacueca), the national dance of Chile, are heard in these tonadas, perhaps the most effective of those heard was the Nš. 7, reminding this listener of the humor and irony of French composer Erik Satie. Domingo Santa Cruz (b. 1889) is clearly the most influential Chilean musician of the first half of the twentieth century. A former diplomat, founder and dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Chile for over twenty years as well as a composer, Santa Cruz was represented by three of his Poemas Trágicos, Nos. 1, 2 and 5 (1929). The first, a repeated ostinato B, initially in single notes, expanding to octave repetition (surrounded by chordal and brief melodic passages) represents the hooting of an owl, which in Chilean folklore signifies a warning of death. The second of the Poemas had an intriguing haunting quality, the third being somewhat rambling and spacious.

The major work of the first half was the Sonata, Opus 60 (1967) of Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919) written for and dedicated to Alfonso Montecino, his countryman and colleague at Indiana University in Bloomington (both men are members of the faculty of the School of Music). Written in four movements, Libero e mesto. Allegro risoluto; Maestoso; Prestissimo; and Violento e cangiante, the Sonata is played without interruption. After the rather vague introduction, the opening Allegro presented the evening's first technical challenge, a balanced, self-contained and satisfying movement. The Maestoso section was one of heavy repeated chords played fortissimo alternating with softer, broader-spaced harmonic and melodic sections. The last two movements, somewhat uneven in this listener's view, offered a technical tour de force encompassing the entire range of the keyboard with extremely difficult appegiated figures. The work concluded with a muted, repeated pitch as if ending at a distance. Orrego-Salas has been Chile's leading musical scholar for several decades. For twenty years, while teaching at the University of Chile, he held positions as editor of Revista Musical Chilena, music critic of El Mercurio, director of the Institute de Extension Musical, and chairman of the Music Department at the Catholic University. To American musicians and musicologists, Orrego-Salas is best known for his contributions as Director of the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University and his writings, most notably his entries on Latin America, in the Harvard Dictionary of Music.

In contrast to the rather abstract Sonata of Orrego-Salas, the Sonata (1950) of Alfonso Leng (1894-1974) was a well-structured work in three movements, Allegro con brio; Andante; and Allegro. Leng, whose Sonata opened the second half of the program, was essentially self-taught, a dentist who pursued composition consistently throughout his life. I could not help reflect if a parallel might not be drawn between Leng and United States composer Charles Ives who successfully occupied himself with the insurance business by day and musical composition by night. I was impressed by the Sonata and feel Leng's music deserves to be better known outside of his native country.

Leon Schidlowsky (b. 1931-) is clearly a miniturist in the mold of Austrian composer Anton Webern. His 6 Miniatures for Piano (1952) with titles such as Illustrations of paintings by Paul Klee; House at Night; What is missing?; Eats from the Hand; The Spirit of the Theatre; Where From Where? Where to? were brief vignettes, one assumes in the twelve-tone idiom.

Compositions for the left hand, by definition somewhat unusual, present a particular challenge to the composer, in particular the effect of fullness (as though both hands were being employed). Perhaps the most notable example is the Concerto for the Left Hand (1931) of Maurice Ravel who wrote the work for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian pianist who lost his right hand during World War I. Pianist Alfonso Montecino's own work, Composition for the Left Hand Alone, was composed in 1951 as a result of an accident the pianist suffered on the Staten Island Ferry in New York. Written in three movements (Allegro ben ritmato; Andante (interlude): and Finale: Allegro molto vivace), Montecino has created a well conceived work, highly pianistic, and deserving of a place in the international repertoire. The recital concluded with Carlos Botto's (b. 1923-) 70 Preludes for Piano (1952). A student of Orrego-Salas, Botto's training as a composer and a pianist is very much in evidence. Contemporary in idiom and only mildly atonal, each prelude was self-contained yet contributed to the set. Botto is another Chilean composer whose works deserve to be better known. After the concert I checked the Schwann record catalogue. Regrettably, not one of the composers heard in the Montecino recital is listed.

This concert was produced and underwritten, one assumes, by David Valjalo, a poet and editor of Literatura Chilena en el Exilio. Although a resident of this country for at least twenty years, Valjalo is a dedicated Chilean nationalist, one that any South American country would proudly claim. Montecino is a gifted pianist dedicated to performing the works of his countrymen. He and the music he performed clearly deserved a larger audience.


Editado electrónicamente por C.D. Blest el 30may03