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Brazil Featured in the Embassy Series

This post comes from Ionarts guest contributor Lindsay Heller.

Last night not only marked the opening of the Embassy Series’s 2005-2006 season, but it also marked the first time Brazil had been featured as a country in the program. In a special performance celebrating Brazil’s Independence Day (which is actually September 7), the acclaimed clarinet quintet Sujeito a Guincho was joined by friend and fellow artist Mônica Salmaso.

Brazilian Ambassador Roberto Abdenur gave a light-hearted and warm welcome speech, aptly explaining the interesting name of what is not your typical ensemble. In Portuguese, Sujeito a Guincho can be translated as “subject to tow away,” as in an illegally parked car. Among Brazilian musicians, however, it is a phrase used to describe one’s fear of constantly making a mistake. Thankfully, five of Brazil’s best clarinetists were sharing a stage, and so I really did not think the audience had anything to fear.

Two hours of traditional Brazilian songs filled the Mayflower hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., and I personally do not think they could have chosen a more varied and appropriate program. Much of the arrangements were the work of Luca Raele, a member of the quintet, who certainly has a gift for taking pieces never intended for the clarinet and arranging it for five of them. As if some of the best clarinet playing was not enough to convince a listener of the talents each person possessed, songstress Mônica Salmaso was an absolute delight. Her interpretations, tone, and approach to everything she sang were almost impeccable, not to mention Salmaso being a wonderful bearer of the traditions other singers held before her.

It is actually quite difficult to pick “highlights” from this program because everything was truly wonderful. I was delighted to hear works by some of Brazil’s most noted composers, such as Ernesto Nazareth, whose Ouro Sobre Azul can conjure up images of a Brazilian Scott Joplin. As the ensemble and Salmaso got further into the first half of their program, though, the real gems began to shine.

Due to the somewhat informal nature of the concert, I was quite pleased when either Salmaso or Mr. Raele decided to give musicological explanations of pieces such as Cidade Lagoa. (I, as a musicologist, delight in such geeky intellectual pursuits. [Hooray for musicological geeks!--CTD]) This song is a type of samba that I actually was not familiar with but now have completely become infatuated with, due to its varied and worldly nature. Cidade Lagoa is known as a samba breque, where there are breaks in the storytelling by the singer, yet the music from the instrumentalists never ceases until the samba is complete. Ms. Salmaso informed everyone that it was made famous by Morena da Silva, who in his later years, would sometimes forget which samba he was singing during the breaks or, worse, forget to come back in at all. This type of samba was definitely a nod back to much of Brazil’s African roots, not only in the style of the music, but in its structure. A mixture between a traditional samba and maxixe, these two very traditional Brazilian dances and musical genres made for an entirely entertaining piece of music.

Before the close of the first half, Sujeito a Guincho performed quite possibly one of the more clever pieces of music I have heard in a long time. Baião a Quatro Toques is actually meant to be a joke (not funny “ha ha,” but simply a joke) on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Written by composer Zé Miguel Wisnik — a fairly young man who is now gaining prominence back in Brazil — this was fabulously “elastic,” as Salmaso put it. Clarinetist Luca Raele even suggested playing a game of “Where’s Wally?” as he put it (most likely attempting to reference the once popular “Where’s Waldo?” books), encouraging the audience to see just how many references to and quotations of Beethoven there were. The lyrics themselves were quite interesting as well, honestly showing that both musically and lyrically there are not always large gaps between classical and popular music.

The second half of the program brought with it more sambas, chôros, and maxixes, but there was one tune that, for me personally, just did not belong. Since there was no explanation given, I am only left to wonder why Salmaso and Sujeito performed “Send in the Clowns.” As if I did not immediately get depressed every time I have heard Frank Sinatra sing it, I certainly did not want to hear it performed by five clarinets. Oh, well: you win some, you lose some.

The last three pieces thankfully redeemed the happy mood from earlier on in the show, beginning with a piece about an egg (O Ovo). Ms. Salmaso credited the composer, Hermeto Paschoal, with teaching musicians to be freer with themselves and have more fun with music. This piece was certainly that — free, sprightly, fun, jazzy — and if that was not enough to catch your attention, then the first twenty or thirty seconds of the introduction sounded remarkably like Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” theme. I also could not help but think how ingenious it was for Ms. Salmaso to use a wisk and small frying pan for both imagery and rhythmic effects.

The final two works, Bis a Bis and Chiclete com Banana, are simply just fun. Bis a Bis reminds some members of the quintet of two old ladies gossiping, as they put it, and the effective use of dissonant harmony amongst jazz and dance rhythms did conjure up images of two little yentas sitting on a bench. (For those of you who are not familiar with Yiddish, a yenta can be many things, but when it boils down to it, it is a woman who likes to talk.) Chiclete com Banana is another wonderfully clever tune that speaks of mixing American and Brazilian cultures. Here again was the traditional samba and maxixe rhythms intertwined with lyrics about the boogie-woogie and the samba, Miami and Rio de Janeiro, but most of all a nice message of cultural unity.

Well-deserving of the standing ovation, Sujeito a Guincho and Mônica Salmaso came out for an encore that was just breathtaking. I was feeling a bit shafted, having attended a traditional Brazilian concert and not having heard Jobim, but thankfully they came through and the concert could end. Followed by a lovely reception allowing patrons to mingle with the artists and members of Latin American government, this concert is definitely a sign that once again, the Embassy Series will be top-notch and nothing short of fabulous. With 38 more concerts left in this year’s series, I urge everyone to go to the Embassy Series Web site and see which countries are of interest to your particular tastes. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed...

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