The fifteenth “Bienal de Música Brasileira Contemporânea” (Biennial Festival of Brazilian Contemporary Music) took place in Rio de Janeiro, November 9-16, 2003. The festival traces its beginnings to the first “Festival de Música da Guanabara,” held under the auspices of the late, lamented State of Guanabara (which incorporated the portion of the present state of Rio de Janeiro that had been the Federal District (D.F.), after the national capital had moved to Brasília), a festival planned and organized by the composer Edino Krieger. The first of the present series of festivals took place in 1975, under the auspices of the state of Rio de Janeiro, and since 1981, as a presentation of Funarte (the National Foundation for the Arts of the Ministry of Culture).
My only previous experience with the Bienal was that held in 1999 (the thirteenth). Since it was the last to be held during the twentieth century, its mission was retrospective, summing up the classical music of Brazil during the previous hundred years. This was marvelous for a novice listener, who had a chance to experience in concert masterworks which are rarely even available on recordings, but it meant that the Bienal’s traditional mission, that of presenting the latest work of living Brazilian composers, went by the wayside, and also the informal, but no less important, mission, of making possible connections between composers working in all parts of a large and often geographically disconnected country.
As the Bienal is dependent on government funding to a much greater extent than similar enterprises in the U.S., which can rely on private donations, changes in the climate in Brasília can and do affect what finally gets to the public. This seemed to be a somewhat frugal Bienal – only one orchestral concert, with the rest of the programs devoted to chamber music and solo works. Admissions are subsidized (only one real!), likewise the programs (R$2), and even the t-shirts (R$5), but unfortunately the printed program was too spartan to include details about the biographies of the composers and performers, or analysis of the works presented, something that had been available for listeners at previous festivals. Instead, there was a presenter – a regal presence, with excellent diction (important for gringos in particular), who announced the works with brief spoken program notes (although I heard grumbling that the Bienal might have done better to have a musician do the job).
Previous commitments meant that I had to fly out of Galeão (Tom Jobim International Airport) prior to the last three concerts of the Bienal, but the previous week’s listening was packed with interesting and challenging works performed at a high level.
The Bienal began (Sunday, 7 p.m., Sala Cecília Meirelles) with a program of works with string orchestra, played by the Orquestra Unisinos of Porto Alegre, directed by Roberto Duarte, a “carioca” (Rio de Janeiro native) who took charge as artistic director in 2003 (the group was founded by José Pedro Boessio in 1996). The concert was bookended by two works in relatively similar styles, opening with Aetherus by Harry Crowl (born 1958, resides in Curitiba), and closing with the String Symphony no. 2 of Sérgio di Sabbato (born 1955, resides in Petrópolis). Both drew on the international modernism of the mid-twentieth century, without either referencing Brazilian musics, contemporary popular musics, or the minimalism popular in the US. Calimério Soares (born 1944, resides in Uberlândia) was represented by a setting of two poems by Pessoa and Drummond (O Rio e a Lagoa), in a style that was more reminiscent of melodrama (declaimed speech with musical support) than song. Um gringo no Brasil (by Nestor de Hollanda Cavalcanti, born 1949, resides in Rio de Janeiro) seemed made to order for this listener (with movements showing the gringo playing choro, samba, seresta, and frevo), but it was sweet enough to make me wish that the gringo in question had a little more of the “malandro” about him. The unquestioned crowd-pleaser was the showpiece for flute and strings, Pattapiana (named for Brazilian flute icon Pattapio Silva), by Dimitri Cervo (born 1968, resides in Porto Alegre), a bright, cheerful work with flashy and effective writing for the soloist (very nicely played by Eduardo Monteiro of UFRJ, the Rio de Janeiro Federal University).
The next night was Noite Petrobrás (though it wasn’t clear why), split roughly 40/60 between works with string quartet, and works with bass clarinet and percussion. The evening began with the Quintet for Horn and Strings (1999) by Mario Ficarelli (born 1935, resides in São Paulo), which combined the serious and playful, with a masterful combination of the disparate timbres of brass and strings, and a witty use of repetition. Next was Vórtice (Vortex) for string quartet by Marisa Rezende (resides in Rio de Janeiro), which made a very strong impression in the performance by the String Quartet of the City of São Paulo. Rezende’s language was original and captivating, amazing this listener as the work finally dissolved into nothingness amidst ghostly whispers and slides. Of the remaining six works on the program, four were duos for bass clarinet and percussion, and one a trio for cello, bass clarinet and percussion. This is understandable from an administrative point of view, but more variety of timbre might have been easier on the listener. Of these works the most immediately appealing was Risco, the above-mentioned trio, by Fernando Iazzetta (born 1966, resides in São Paulo), with short movements, lively rhythms, and a mood that was more “hip” than “modern.”
On Tuesday, the Bienal moved to the Sala Baden Powell in Copacabana for two nights of stage and electroacoustic music. The mood here was notably more unbuttoned than at the Sala Cecilia Meirelles downtown, with a much younger crowd (including literally dozens of students from the Escola Villa-Lobos), a much higher volume level, and perhaps unavoidably, a little less attention to the works. Among the works that stick in the memory: Entre Janelas by Chico Mello (born 1957, resides in Rio de Janeiro) played with the habitual nervous motions and tics of the performer (each member of the quartet with his own mannerism), and pointed up the stuttering with a musical quote from Gago Apaixonado (Stutterer in Love) by Noel Rosa. The solo nocturne for “falling-down-drunk” pianist by Tim Rescala (born 1961, resides in Rio de Janeiro) (Noturno depois do vinho), sad and hilariously funny at the same time, was brilliantly acted and virtuosically played by Maria Teresa Madeira. The piece of "musique concrete" based on the instantly recognizable opening of the pop song “Downtown” (one of Três Clips by Rodolfo Caesar (born 1950, RJ) was exhilarating. And the “piece de resistance” was the stunning trio for guitars, Organismos, by Tato Taborda (born 1960, resides in Rio de Janeiro), a seriously twisted piece of fun built of effects in triplicate, culminating in a discordant lead melody accompanied by an equally out-of-tune walking bass. The evening was only marred by the sophomoric response from the “rapaziada” of the Escola Villa-Lobos to the modern dancer, and the fact that a substantial part of the audience (the following night as well) remained in the lobby after the interval talking at a level disruptive of the music inside.
Wednesday’s evening began with the only real disappointment of the Bienal. This was the portion of the program devoted to performances by the student ensemble from UFRJ, Ofelex (short for Electronic Experimental Workshop), where the proportion and level of improvisation were reminiscent of the excesses of thirty-five years before. This is work that may be important in the university context, but it seemed radically out-of-place in a festival presenting the best of Brazilian music since 2001. The violent rhetoric of the piece for solo piano and electronics by Luiz Carlos Csekö (born 1945, resides in Rio de Janeiro), Noite do Catete 3 (Catete Night no. 3) also made an impression, leaving the listener wondering what the reference might be – gunfire from the Santo Amaro “favela”?
On Thursday the Bienal moved back to the center of town, with an evening focused on works for and with guitar. Here, not surprisingly, there were a few more references to explicit Brazilian styles of music. The most extended and ambitious works on the program were presented by guitarist Fabio Adour – Suarabacti by Pauxy Gentil-Nunes (born 1963, resides in Rio de Janeiro), and Pentalogia by Alexandre Eisenberg (born 1966, resides in Bloomington, Indiana). The latter was simply a torrent of notes (“anti-Webern”, you might say), and effectively shaped, rushing to a thrilling conclusion. Adour played the bejeezus out of it. The evening closed with a piece for guitar quintet which was clearly out of place – melodious, well-played, accessible – but MPB, not classical music.
Friday’s focus was the piano. Jorge Meletti’s Ciclotimia for piano trio and percussion was energetic, rhythmic, and very tight, and made a strong impression. The Estudo Paulistano by Celso Loureiro Chaves (born 1950, Porto Alegre) for solo piano made a good contrast – quiet, meditative, repetitive, trance-like, beautifully played by Marcelo Verzoni. Lourdes Saraiva’s Gitanjali (resides in Porto Alegre) might have been evoking the timeless quality of the Hindustani alap, but its length was much greater than its substance. The most striking work of the evening was the incantatory Nocturne for Chopin: in memoriam for piano with offstage accordion, by Antônio Carlos Borges Cunha (born 1952, resides in Porto Alegre) – a sparse fragment repeated, like a mind that can’t let go of a meaningful, painful memory – trying to understand it, make it fit, and the ethereal sounds of the accordion a ghostly response from another realm to the onstage pondering. A pity that the silence of the hall was not quite equal to the beauty of the piece. A memorable work. I also enjoyed the movements from the Brazilian Fruits series of Rodrigo Vitta (born 1975, resides in São Paulo) suggesting Russian or French pianism refracted through Brazil.
My farewell to the Bienal was the Saturday afternoon program, with eleven chamber works. The first half included works for solo piano by Paulo Costa Lima (born 1954 , resides in resides in Salvador), Agnaldo Ribeiro (born 1943, Salvador), and Sílvia Berg. Costa Lima’s Eis aqui was full of clusters and ostinato, with some hints of Brazil in the contrasting material; Ribeiro’s Solopiano was loud, virtuosic, atonal, modern; and Berg’s Pêndulo was well-stolen from the Debussy Preludes, though perhaps a little too obviously. The Dance no. 1 by Januibe Tejera (resides in Florianópolis) for solo flute was brilliantly played by Andrea Ernest Dias, whose mastery of the instrument shaped a piece from the many special effects asked for by the composer.
The second half was music by the composers from the cooperative Preludio XXI, based in Rio. Sérgio Roberto de Oliveira’s (born 1970, resides in Rio de Janeiro) duo for clarinet and contrabass, Pau e Corda (Wood and String), was an engaging and subtle transformation of popular materials, with an exceptional interpretation by Marcos dos Passos and Alexandre Brasil. Alexandre Schubert’s (born 1970, resides in Rio de Janeiro) trombone sonata was very much in a Hindemithian vein. I enjoyed the free play of almost Dixelandish counterpoint in Neder Nassaro’s (resides in Rio de Janeiro) Solids and Liquids (piano, clarinet, trombone, bass). Caio Senna’s (born 1959, resides in Rio de Janeiro) O jardim das veredas que se bifurcam (The garden of the splitting paths) for the same forces, managed to be modern in vocabulary, and almost romantic in sentiment and effect.
And then I was off to Tom Jobim airport for a flight to the frozen north.
My week at the Bienal gave me view into an intensely active compositional culture, with performances on a very high level, and enthusiastic audiences with a very healthy proportion of young listeners. I am eagerly looking forward to hearing the next installment.
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