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Treasure-hunting with the Cuarteto Carpentier

La Embajada de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela & La Sección de Intereses de Cuba

What do Cuba and Venezuela have in common? I don't want to get too political here on Ionarts, but long speeches have something to do with it. And so the introductions to a performance in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier by the Venezuelan Ambassador and the Director of the Cuban Interest Section were long, if shy of excessive.

Hosting a crowd of excited Spanish speakers (plus me, somewhere in between), the Salón Bolivariano was filled to capacity on November 17th. Following a somewhat stodgy audiovisual presentation of an interview with Carpentier (courtesy of the Universidad Central de Venezuela) the Cuarteto Carpentier played a program of Venezuelan, Cuban, Brazilian, and Argentinean music. Save for the latter two contributions (Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astor Piazzolla), all composers were new discoveries for me.

Juan Bautista Plaza, Ademaro Romero Zerpa, and the quartet's violinist Eddie Venegas (all Venezuelan), as well as Alejandro Garcia Caturla and Amadeo Roldan (both Cuban) had hitherto flown below my cultural radar—for the most part at my own peril. J. B. Plaza's Fuga Criolla (1935) turned out to be a well-crafted fugue that starts out like an American revolutionary song on fiddles, brushing up against Bach. It then gets more serious (and better) as it progresses. It surely doesn't reach the depth of Beethoven, but its gravitas invokes, in several moments, his late string quartets. A. G. Caturla's Preludio (from his Four Pieces for String Quartet) is a 1926 avant-garde work of a composer instrumental in the Afro-Cuban cultural movement (including Carpentier and Wilfredo Lam of The Jungle fame.) If the previous work ended on a note of late Beethoven, this piece begins on it. For something considered avant-garde it was perfectly harmless, though beautiful and by no means shallow.

A higher dose of South American rhythms can be detected in A. R. Zerpa's Fandango (1986), safely anchored in tonality and entertaining without stooping to the lowest common denominator. The Jobim bossa nova Cega de Saudade—arranged for string quartet and percussion by the aforementioned Eddie Venegas, the youngest member of the group with David Gotay (cello), and the two more veteran musicians Romulo Benavides (violin) and Samuel Marchan (viola)—was quaint, even without the rhythm section, though there were problems in keeping the music together.

Amadeo Roldan, of the same movement as Caturla, was featured with Poema Negro, also from 1926. A musical depiction of the ceremonies of former slaves, the first movement Invocacion sounds far more modern than any of the other, later pieces of the evening. While it may or may not owe anything to Bartók, it certainly has similarities with the Hungarian's string quartets, not the least in the use of and inspiration by traditional melodies and rhythms. It was the richest and most rewarding work of an evening full of startling discoveries.

Eddie Venegas's own Danzon Para-Ti—made up of two movements, Danza and Rumba—was (to my chagrin, given the composer's jealousy-evoking youth) not half bad, either. Gutsy and daring as it is to write at that stage for what may be the most challenging musical format, the piece worked extremely well for the first part and then stumbled terribly in the Rumba section, where old tricks on the instruments are rehashed without an underlying musical idea. It picks up speed but doesn't regain its fine and reasonably original character until the last few bars.

Astor Piazzolla—New York and Paris-exposed, Nadia Boulanger-trained—was the last treat on the program. Four for Tango, a Kronos Quartet commission from 1980, was all the Piazzolla we love save for the Bandaneon, of course. Argentina beat Venezuela (3-2) in a football match that night, but the Cuarteto retained its musical professionalism and didn't take their partisanship out on Astor. A little Columbian encore on a Cuban Cha-Cha-Cha was the parting gift from what had turned out to be a wholly enjoyable evening. The most exquisite reception (and the strong Mojitos that the Cubans had prepared) made even the sole Gringo feel comfortable. Save for the lack of English translations in the program, it was a most successful night in the world of cultural diplomacy.

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