I’m writing this post listening to a great recording of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic playing “Batuque” by Oscar Fernandez. The juxtaposition of major and minor and the driving rhythm of this dance make the piece absolutely compelling.

It has somehow always striked me how little south american music is programmed in regular concert seasons. With the exception of Piazzolla, omnipresent in bars and concert halls alike, most south american composers are casually ignored. Even Villa-Lobos and Ginastera are way too often left out the door.

I certainly cannot give you an explanation of why this is. I’ve had the pleasure a few years ago to conduct the premiere of an opera by Venezuelan composer Efrain Amaya: the opera is based on Shakespeare’s “The taming of the shrew”, the libretto is italian and the music oozes south american rhythms. Imagine Petruchio and Katherina fighting at a tango pace!

I’m getting more involved in it preparing for my next concert: as I dig into Guastavino’s music, I get more and more fascinated with the melancholic substrate that seems to be a common denominator for south american composers. It seems like it’s in their dna to transfer the painful history of that continent to their music. But when they’re cheerful, there’s no room for anything else, it’s a pure explosion of joy.

What distinguishes south american music right away, besides the rhythm, is the color: Efrain’s opera had almost more percussion than other instruments put together. From claves to maracas, from marimba to guiro to cabaça, they all contribute at one point or another to create that typical Latin flavour you immediately recognize.

The influence this music had on other composers is uncanny: think about Copland (Danzon Cubano or El Salon Mexico) or Bernstein (how about West Side Story?)

There’s a pile of composers whose music I wish to tackle, from Ariel Ramirez, famous for his Missa Criolla, to Radames Gnattali, whose music mixes up classical and jazz equally. And then Silvestre Revueltas, Camargo Guarnieri and Gustavo Becerra.

There’s always room for more good music.

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