The music of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) once again cast a magical spell over Richmond, Virginia, when the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Music hosted the “Experiencing Villa-Lobos Festival” on March 21–23, 2019. VCU held a similar festival in 2008, which was quite successful. The 2019 festival attracted performers and scholars from Brazil, Chile, Germany, Canada, and from across the United States. The many performances, master classes, and scholarly presentations showcased the great variety of music composed by Villa-Lobos, including works for solo instruments, voice, chorus, small ensembles, and orchestra.
One of the main objectives for the festival was to provide a comprehensive look at Villa-Lobos the composer, and feature as much of his music as possible, not just his works for guitar. In fact, no major guitarists were invited to participate in the festival, as it was anticipated that some fine guitarists would respond to the “Call for Performers” and “Call for Papers” and that Villa-Lobos’ guitar music would be well-represented. This proved to be the case.
The festival opened on Thursday, March 21, with a late afternoon reception for the festival participants in VCU’s historic Anderson Gallery, which for many years was a leading venue for contemporary art in the Southeast. VCU guitarist Andrew Stevenson delighted those attending with an impromptu concert of Villa-Lobos’ Etudes. The reception was followed with the keynote dddress given by Dr. Grayson Wagstaff of the Catholic University of America, and the opening concert in the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall. The concert featured two important works by Villa-Lobos: the Concerto for Harp and Choros No. 10for Chorus and Orchestra. The Concerto for Harp was commissioned by the Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, and composed in 1953 shortly after the Concerto for Guitar; it was one of Villa-Lobos’ last works. Villa-Lobos had stated that he was able to compose for the harp because, “I played the harp from my experience with the guitar.” The soloist for this festival performance was Colleen Thorburn, professor of harp and theory at VCU. Her masterful performance drew a standing ovation. To complement and also contrast the concerto, Choros No. 10 for chorus and orchestra was selected. This work, composed in Rio in 1926, is probably the best known of the composer’s Choros cycle. The work featured VCU’s Commonwealth Singers and the VCU Symphony expertly conducted by Daniel Myssyk. Many of the participants, including those from Brazil, praised this memorable performance, which also drew a standing ovation. For many in the audience, this concert was an eye-opening introduction to the music of the great Brazilian composer.
The first full day of the festival on Friday, March 22, included presentations of scholarly papers, a visiting artists showcase concert, a piano master class, a young performers’ concert, a vocal/choral concert, and a concert by pianist Sonia Rubinksy. At the visiting artists showcase concert, guitar enthusiasts were delighted by the exquisite performance from Bernardo Marcondes, a doctoral candidate at the Eastman School of Music, who performed a Prelude, two Etudes, and the Schottish-Chôro. Also on the program was the duo of Wan-Ling Chuang, double bass, and Ken Luk, guitar; this unique ensemble displayed great musicianship and sensitivity with performances of several arrangements of Villa-Lobos’ music, including the famous Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. Luk, an accomplished performer, teaches guitar at the State University of New York at Geneseo and at Alfred University.
Bernardo Marcondes of the Eastman School of Music performs Prelude No. 1 in December 2018.
Ken Luk and Wan-Ling Chuang played a unique version of the Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. Photo courtesy of VCUarts
The young performers concert featured solo works for piano as well as solo and ensemble works for the guitar. High school students from Richmond’s Collegiate Upper School Guitar Ensemble, conducted by David Robinson, demonstrated poise and musicianship. Of special interest was Robinson’s very effective transcription for guitar ensemble of the Allegretto Scherzando from Villa-Lobos’ String Quartet No. 1.
The highlight of this event-filled day was the piano concert by Sonia Rubinsky. This exceptional artist, who currently resides in Paris, is an American who grew up in Brazil. She is an authority on Villa-Lobos’ music; in fact, in France she is known as “Madame Villa-Lobos.” She recently was the recipient of a Latin Grammy for her eighth recording of Villa-Lobos’ vast piano works. In an interview for VCUarts, she stated that her all-Villa-Lobos program included works that are “very varied in form and content. There are pieces with strong folkloric component… Others are very modern… And I love all of them. There is so much feeling, passion and vivacity in them.” Her brilliant performance demonstrated that she is truly a world-class artist and perhaps the greatest proponent of Villa-Lobos’ music today.
Saturday, March 23, the third and final day of the festival, began with more presentations of papers. In particular, the presentations by guitarists Richard E. Miller (Columbia University, New York) and Silvio dos Santo (University of Florida) were informative, interesting, and well-received by a large group of teachers, students, and visiting scholars. This was followed by a round table discussion on the life and music of Villa-Lobos. The panel consisted of Sonia Rubinsky, Grayson Wagstaff, José Carlos Vasconcellos (who recently authored a new book on Villa-Lobos), and members of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano.
The afternoon included a string master class and two concerts, including one titled “The Brazilian Guitar,” which featured students, faculty, and alumni of VCU’s Guitar Program. This program of solo and ensemble works by Villa-Lobos, Baden Powell, Sérgio Assad, and Celso Machado also included a new work for guitar ensemble titled Festa de Dança Noturna, composed specifically for this festival concert by Frank Mullen III. Mullen, a VCU alumnus, developed his passion for Brazilian popular music while serving as arranger and bandleader for several United States Navy bands. This new work was skillfully performed by the combined VCU Guitar Ensemble and the VCU Community Guitar Ensemble. The combined VCU Guitar Ensemble and VCU Community Guitar Ensemble. Photo courtesy of VCUarts
The closing concert featured the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, one of the world’s most renowned string quartets and one of the leading ensembles promoting the music of Latin American composers. The program included the Fifth and Sixth string quartets by Villa-Lobos, as well as string quartets by two Cuban composers better known for their guitar works: Leo Brouwer and Julián Orbón. Brouwer’s String Quartet No.3, composed in 1997, contains many unusual effects reminiscent of those found in some of his guitar works. Orbón, whose Preludio y Danza for solo guitar is still popular today, was strongly influenced by the music of Villa-Lobos. His String Quartet, composed in 1951 while Villa-Lobos was alive, demonstrates an individuality that was also a hallmark of the great Brazilian composer.
Prior to the festival, pianist Sonia Rubinsky stated, “this festival is a wonderful project, unique in the world. The music of Villa-Lobos is vast and varied. There are many aspects in need of research. I do hope that these actions help promote this wonderful music as well as research in this area of study.”
Through the many festival concerts and events, participants and listeners at the Experiencing Villa-Lobos Festival did get to know better—in a way, “experience”—the life and music of one of the greatest figures in 20th century music.
John Patykula is Assistant Chair and Coordinator of the Guitar Program for the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Music. He was Administrative Director for the Experiencing Villa-Lobos Festival.