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Classical Lost And Found: A Mid-Century View From Venezuela

Composer Evencio Castellanos helped develop a national sound for classical music in Venezuela.
Pablo Zeccara
Naxos Records
Composer Evencio Castellanos helped develop a national sound for classical music in Venezuela.

Except for two years of piano studies in New York City in the late 1940s, Venezuelan Evencio Castellanos was a homegrown musician. And based on this sampling of his symphonic output, he'd seem to be his country's leading twentieth century composer. Having the melodic flow of Heitor Villa-lobos, and the rhythmic urgency of Alberto Ginastera (two fellow South Americans), these brilliantly scored works are impressive.

The album begins with a pair of tone poems. The first, Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, from 1954, was occasioned by the construction of a church near Caracas. The boisterous percussion-laced beginning paints a festive portrait of a religious celebration. A winsome South American waltz follows, and the piece concludes in the same high spirits in which it began. The world of Ginastera's Panambi and Estancia is not far away.

El Rio de las Siete Estrellas (The River of the Seven Stars), written in 1946, takes inspiration from a poem about Venezuela's precolonial Indian population. The chief's alluring daughter is represented by the pristine, relaxed opening.

Several colorful animated episodes follow. One of them recalls Manuel de Falla's Ritual Fire Dance, and may possibly be related to a mythical volcano in the story. There's also a warlike segment commemorating the 1821 Battle of Carabobo, which led to Venezuela's independence. The tone poem jubilantly concludes by incorporating fragments of the Venezuelan national anthem.

The disc closes with the Suite Avilena, from 1947, a musical tribute to the Mount El Ávila area north of Caracas. In five scenes, Castellanos bases most of his melodies on Venezuelan popular songs, and calls for instruments such as the cuatro, a smaller version of the guitar, and Latin American maracas.

Highlights of the suite include a magical opening based on chants of Caracas flower merchants, which oddly anticipates Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. The eerie, meditative "Nocturno" is all the more mysterious for some catchy cuatro and celesta ornamentation, while the two closing Christmas scenes borrow from Venezuelan carols. A big tune in the last one recalls Louis Moreau Gottschalk's Bamboula, making one wonder if both composers might have had the same folk song in mind.

Conductor Jan Wagner summons stunning performances from the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra. His attention to rhythmic as well as dynamic detail in the two poems, and sensitive handling of the suite guarantee these luxuriant scores never become over-romanticized.

Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.

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Bob McQuiston