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Villa-Lobos: Symphonist

Generally, when we think of the compositional output of the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, we think of the remarkable series of “Bachianas Brasileiras,” and then perhaps the collection of compositions he referred to as “Choros.” Within this music, so core to Villa-Lobos, we find compositions which pay his debt to Bach, show his love for the cello (the more the merrier), and in the “Choros” music which resonates into the concert hall the popular Brazilian form known as choro. Without a doubt, Villa-Lobos would be well remembered and highly regarded today, even if we never encountered any of his other music.

But the fact is, Villa-Lobos was a prolific composer. Aaron Copland famously, if not very kindly, assessed Villa-Lobos thusly: “Villa-Lobos’ music has one outstanding quality – its abundance.” If we ignore the snub, Copland’s statement stands accurate. Villa-Lobos wrote concerti, string quartets, remarkable music for solo piano, vocal and choral music, film scores and symphonies.

Some analysts of Villa-Lobos’ music feel he was more comfortable, therefore more successful, when writing music which had less formal structure. There is probably a good bit of truth to that, and that is one of the reasons that his symphonies are late in coming to wide circulation. The formality of structure in a symphony was something which Villa-Lobos had to address. It was a lifelong pursuit. The recording by Carl St. Clair and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony of the complete symphonies of Villa-Lobos, very well played and recorded, opened the door on the possibilities. And now the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and conductor Isaac Karabtchevsky have embarked on their own cycle. What’s next, a revival of the Broadway show “Magdalena?”

On this week’s edition of Itinerarios, music with Latin American roots, a sampling of the first disc from Karabtchevsky’s cycle. We will hear the “Symphony No. 6,” subtitled “On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil.” This reflects a system which Villa-Lobos used now and then, called millimeterization. In the 6th Symphony, he used graph paper to map outlines of a landscape of mountains and valleys. This he translated into the contour of certain melodies. This is not the only instance of millimeterization. He also wrote a short piece called “New York Skyline Melody.” We’ll hear that music too.

Itinerarios can be heard Sunday evening from 7-9 PM on KPAC-San Antonio and KTXI-Ingram. It is produced and hosted by James Baker.

James first introduced himself to KPAC listeners at midnight on April 8, 1993, presenting Dvorak's 7th Symphony played by the Cleveland Orchestra. Soon after, he became the regular overnight announcer on KPAC.