Eric Writes About...Carnivale!

Most of us don’t observe Lent by altering our behaviors much, so the true import of the title of this program is a little lost. “Carnival” (or “Carnivale” if you want to be a little exotic) conjures up images of under-dressed young women in street parades or of cruise ships. In medieval Europe, the beginning of Lent was marked as a “carne vale”—literally “meat forsaking,” and the period before Ash Wednesday became a final fling at the consumption of meat and indulgence in all of the behaviors that one was going to desist from during Lent. The “Carnival” became a celebration lasting several days, incorporating food, music, and dance. While the word is of Italian origin, these days much of the imagery comes to us from Latin America, and it is that connection that we explore in the program this evening.

The music of Central and South American countries share stylistic traits that are the blending of European, indigenous native, and African musical styles generated by centuries of political, social, and commercial movements that enmeshed cultures. The musical style is most clearly distinguished by rhythmic energy created by syncopation and cross rhythms. Syncopation is the emphasis of pulses that are opposed to the recurring emphasis of “the beat.” The regularly recurring pulse of the beat is like the click of a clock and is strongly felt in Latin music, but syncopation is an emphasis that momentarily plays against the rule of the beat. Even in the gentle Lullaby of George Gershwin there is a recurring syncopation, creating a lilting emphasis that floats above the regular beat. The tension between clock-work regularity and the more impulsive and somewhat less regular counter-emphasis of syncopation is part of the rhythmic delight of this music. A further delightful complication is created by cross rhythms—two consistent patterns sounding simultaneously that make different emphases. Gershwin again provides some good examples in his Cuban Overture (1932), composed after a short visit to Havana.

Along with the distinctive rhythms of Latin music, there are the numerous percussion instruments borrowed from the indigenous cultures. All manner of idiophones made of gourds, carved wood, or metal are shaken, struck, and scraped and can be heard to great effect in the Cuban Overture and the Samba Concertante of Brazil’s Walter Burle Marx. These instruments are so common in the style that we almost ignore them, but a clear contrast can be heard in the Carnival Overture by the decidedly un-Latin Antonin Dvorak, where the percussion instruments are the more traditional orchestral ones of tympani, triangle, cymbals, and tambourine.

Dvorak composed this work in 1892, and its second performance was given at Carnegie Hall under his direction at the outset of his American sojourn during which he would compose his “American” works, including the New World Symphony. He provides a brief explanatory program note:

”The lonely, contemplative wanderer reaches the city at nightfall, where a carnival is in full swing. On every side is heard the clangor of instruments, mingled with shouts of joy and the unrestrained hilarity of people giving vent to their feelings in their songs and dance tunes.”

Here, the song and dance tunes are from Dvorak’s Bohemian heritage and will contrast in style (if not so much in spirit) with the rest of the music on the program.

The other percussion instrument that is closely associated with music of Latin America and the Caribbean is the steel drum, which, in less than a century since its origin, has become an icon of the high life of Carnivale. Artists like Tom Miller have demonstrated that the instrument is not just for festive music but can be played in varying styles. Good examples are Miller’s original works, his transcription of Ravel’s pianistic tribute to Borodin, and our rendition of the famous Aria from the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s pre-eminent composer.

Originally composed for soprano solo with cello octet, the Bachianas series are pieces composed in Villa-Lobos’ idiomatic style and using the music of J. S. Bach as a model.

Libertango is one of the more famous titles by the Argentinian master of the “tango nuevo,” Astor Piazzolla. My fantasy on his impulsive original was composed for the collaboration with the KSU Dance program last season and features the solo cello and the timbral resources of a full orchestra expanding Piazzolla’s small accordion-based ensemble.

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