KPAC's 30th Anniversary: 30 Great Latin American Recordings
What? Only thirty? Yeah, I get it. This is KPAC’s 30th anniversary year. Happy Birthday KPAC! When I first began presenting the program we know now as "Itinerarios," I felt I had enough material to keep the show going a year, or maybe two. However, it has been a decade of discovery for me as I have done almost constant detective work to find more and better recordings for the show. I am both surprised and exasperated by the experience. Surprised, actually thrilled, to build a library which now includes hundreds of CDs, all of it material with Latin American roots. But exasperated too by the difficulty of finding recordings which do fair representation of countries such as Colombia, or Ecuador, or even Chile and Argentina. I know the material must be there, but finding it is a non-stop job. Thankfully, I relish the challenge. So, here’s to another 30 years for KPAC and another decade, or so, for "Itinerarios."
Click here to listen to a sample of the below list on Spotify. The links within the below list will take you to Amazon for more information or to make a purchase (which will benefit KPAC).
1. Fiesta Criolla: Latin American Orchestral Works
Gabriel Castagna, Wurttembergische Philharmonie
"I've been searching for these all my career!" This exclamation came from conductor turned music detective Gabriel Castagna upon discovering more than 100 Latin-American scores hidden within the Fleisher Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Represented here is the tip of the iceberg, wonderfully played by the Wurttemberg Philharmonic. As an added bonus, this is on the Chandos label, noted for great sounding recordings. This is no exception and is highly recommended.
2. Dancas Brasileiras
Roberto Minczuk, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra
As much as the world has shrunk in the past couple of decades, due largely to the internet and its contribution to the much heralded global economy, the Southern Hemisphere remains largely ignored. In particular, Latin America (and I include here Brazil, though their language is Portuguese) and its “classical” music is at times very difficult to track down, particularly when one's interest is in recorded music. That's why the contributions of both the British based Chandos record label and the Swedish based Bis label are so valuable. The added bonus is that both of these labels manufacture excellent sounding recordings. This collection of Brazilian orchestral dances is an outstanding example of the fine work done by Bis. You will find more of the collaborations between the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Bis throughout this list.
3. Daniel Catán: Il Postino
What heartache when one realizes that the Mexican composer Daniel Catán is no longer with us! His voice was, and continues to be, our introduction to Spanish language opera. His “Rappaccini's Daughter” became the first opera by a Mexican composer to be performed by an American company when it was produced by the San Diego Opera in 1994. This was only the beginning of a steady ascendency to international recognition. When “Il Postino” was premiered in Los Angeles in 2010, the final doors opened. There was near unanimous recognition that Daniel had produced a modern masterpiece. He had about 6 months to revel in his success, telling me in early 2011: “I never in my wildest dreams imagined this would happen to me.” Daniel died unexpectedly a few weeks after that interview at the young age of 62. Thankfully, Placido Domingo, for whom Daniel created the role of Pablo Neruda in “Il Postino,” pressed forward this DVD release of the work’s premiere in Los Angeles. This is an absolute joy!
4. Carlos Chavez: Complete Symphonies (3 discs)
Eduardo Mata, London SO
We often forget that Eduardo Mata was not only an internationally recognized conductor, but he was also a composer. His compositions are rarely heard today, though some are being revived this year in Mexico during a concerted effort to remember Mata in what would have been his 70th year. (He died tragically in a crash of his self-piloted plane in January of 1995.) Mata's principal composition teacher was Carlos Chavez. This gives Maestro Mata a decided advantage as an interpreter of Chavez' music. This Vox set is a bargain. As well, it is representative of some of the important recording work Mata did with the London Symphony. This, and his music directorship of the Dallas Symphony from 1977 to 1993, helped define Mata's international stature.
Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
DG 477 7457
When he first erupted onto the international music scene in 2004 and 2005, many (myself included) were cautious in declaring him the next coming of Leonard Bernstein. It was, in fact, Bernstein's daughter, Jaime Bernstein, who described her discovery of Dudamel: “I’d seen it before: this was the very same energy and pure joy that poured out of my own father when he made music. Why, oh why wasn’t he still around to see this?!” It didn't take long for Gustavo to win my endorsement. He is the real deal and will only continue to grow. This recording placed Gustavo Dudamel (and also the Simón Bolívar Orchestra) in the spotlight. As he matures on the podiums of all the major international orchestras, Dudamel inches ever closer to center stage.
6. Latin America Alive (6 discs)
Eduardo Mata, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
Eduardo Mata took an important role in cultivating the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra into a highly ranked orchestra. Mata was already working with the Dorian record label (producers of some fine sounding discs) when he began making these recordings in Caracas, Venezuela. This is an important Latin American repertoire, beautifully executed. For the most part, these recordings are still available singly, and if one wants to cherry pick the set I would highly recommend Antonio Estevez' "Cantata Criolla.” But then there is also Estevez' “Mediodia en el Llano” and so much more. That's why I recommend this box set as a bargain in both price and musical content. Oh! There's also a good lesson to be considered here. The Dorian label went out of business a few years ago, but for now has resurfaced. Disappointment often awaits those who hesitate pressing the “buy now” button.
7. Uakti: Aguas da Amazonia (Philip Glass)
The music one hears on Itinerarios is required to have some rooted connection to Latin America. It might have the undeniable pedigree of having been written by a Latin American composer. But it might also be rooted to Latin America through the performance. This is a good example of the latter. Philip Glass wrote “Aguas da Amazonia” in 1994 for a Brazilian dance company. Here we find the music rearranged (with the composer's permission) for the fascinating Brazilian percussion ensemble Uakti (pronounced WAHK-chee). I am admittedly not a big fan of Philip Glass, yet I find this music and the convincing performances to be worth letting down my guard. There are wonderful timbres explored here, a perfect relief from the mostly orchestral sounds so far favored on this list.
8. The Danzón According to Márquez
Eduardo Garcia Barrios, Orquesta Mexicana de las Artes
Arturo Márquez 1
The classical airwaves, and many a concert hall, are alive with the infectious “Danzón No. 2” by the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. Now and then one also hears No. 4. In fact, there are so far at least 8 danzónes written by Marquez. This recording covers them all. I was told by the Mexico City writer and music critic Arturo Brennan that Márquez did all the underwriting of this recording and that he was present at the recording sessions. Given that information, one can safely assume these to be authentic interpretations. They certainly sound good to my ear! Mr. Brennan sent me a copy of the disc, but I see it available now and then online. Patience and persistence will yield this recording for you, too. It is well worth the effort to track it down.
9. Pan American Visions
Mexico City Woodwind Quintet
Although we know the Mexican composer Arturo Márquez primarily for his “Danzón No. 2” (and the other delightful danzónes cited previously within this list), he is a composer of a wide variety of music. Not all of it has the dance flavor of a danzón, yet the composition “Danza del Mediodia” is filled with those lilting dance rhythms we so love. The Mexico City Woodwind Quintet is a very active ensemble, both in terms of regular performances, but also actively commissioning new music. This disc is an excellent sampler of contemporary Latin American wind quintets, well played and well recorded. For the record, this recording was made in the wonderful space of the Sala Nezahualcoyotl in Mexico City. Most musicians who have had opportunity to play in that beautiful hall rank it as one of the best acoustics in the world.
10. Villa-Lobos: Choros & Bachianas Brasileiras complete (7 discs)
John Neschling, Roberto Minczuk, Sao Paulo SO
A few years ago, Gramophone Magazine published a list ranking the top 20 orchestras in the world. The list began with the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam at number 1 and the Czech Philharmonic at 20. The writers of the article added an addendum of several orchestras worth watching. The Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra was one of those. I consider this orchestra, hands down, the best in Latin America, and when they record music by Brazilian composers you can't go wrong. These two cycles, the “Choros” and the “Bachiana Brasileiros” by Villa-Lobos, are available by single disc. However, this is such a significant documentation of some of Villa-Lobos most important compositions that it would be remiss not splurging on the entire box set. This has the legendary Bis sound and also reflects the beautiful acoustic of the Sala Sao Paulo, a converted railroad terminal.
11. Villa-Lobos: Complete Symphonies (7 discs)
Carl St. Clair, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
CPO 777 516
Yes, we know Heitor Villa-Lobos mostly for the “Choros” and “Bachianas Brasileiras.” But for good reason Aaron Copland once remarked: “Villa-Lobos’ music has one outstanding quality – its abundance.” While the remark is not altogether fair, it does suggest that there is substantial repertoire to be explored. South Texas born Carl St. Clair did exactly that during his tenure at the head of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony. The CPO record label allowed him to record all of the Villa-Lobos symphonies. There are 12 total, though the score and parts to one is missing. These are fine sounding recordings, and in some cases are first and only recordings of the music. Again, one can cherry pick these recordings one by one, but the entire set of 7 discs saves money and also saves having to go back for more once you sink your teeth into this side of Villa-Lobos. Interestingly, the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra has recently announced their undertaking of a complete set of Villa-Lobos Symphonies. The first volume is already out.
12. Two Concertos for two Guitars (Rodrigo/Castelnuovo-Tedesco)
Assads, John Neschling, St. Gallen SO
Leo Brouwer has declared the guitar playing brothers Sergio and Odair Assad the finest guitar duo in the world. No one dares suggest otherwise, for Maestro Brouwer is absolutely right. You can never go wrong in picking up a recording by the Assads, but if you are interested in Joaquin Rodrigo's “Concierto Madrigal,” with the added bonus of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's double concerto, this is a good place to start.
13. Tango Mata Danzon
Roberto Limon, Eduardo Diazmunoz, Orquesta de Baja California
Here we find another take on Arturo Márquez’ “Danzón No. 3” for guitar and orchestra. There's more content for guitar and orchestra, as well, played by the Mexican artist Roberto Limon. Eduardo Diazmunoz, the conductor, does a fine job with this orchestra located in the somewhat remote outreach of Baja California. A word of warning here. The Quindecim label, based in Mexico, has a wealth of classical recordings, along with a lot of folkloric and other materials. But these recordings can be very difficult to find. Don't be suckered into the $50 offering of this disc on Amazon. Keep looking and you might turn it up for an honest price.
14. Echoes of Argentina
Stuart Canin, New Century CO
For all the musical treasure to be mined in Argentina, it is sad that the bulk of it is Piazzolla and Ginastera. Not that they don't deserve attention, but there are others who also need to be heard. This disc covers a string orchestra repertoire of Ginastera and the less known Alberto Williams. Don't be afraid. This is very friendly music which I love to play on Itinerarios.
Fernando Hasaj, Camerata Bariloche
Camerata Bariloche is touted as the finest chamber orchestra in Latin America and I would not dispute that claim. Their recordings show up on a variety of different labels, but here we find them hooked up with the fine sounding Dorian label. This provides an excellent opportunity to hear from another Argentinean composer often obscured by Piazzolla and Ginastera – Carlos Guastavino.
16. Carlos Franzetti: Piano Concerto No. 1
Allison Brewster Franzetti, Adam Klemens, City of Prague Philharmonic
Amapola Records 2009
The often neglected Argentinean-born composer and musician Carlos Franzetti is certainly worth the acquaintance. Most of his music is found on his own label, Amapola, but it is pretty easy to track down. From his current base in New Jersey, Carlos keeps up a busy career as a composer and pianist. His music, or his jazz performances, is often in play at the Latin Grammys. He is a proud composer of tango, carrying forward the Piazzolla tradition, but I find particularly interesting his orchestral works. They are well structured and more often than not out of a new Romantic mold. The pianist here, Allison Brewster, is the composer's wife, and is a fine interpreter of his music.
17. Sao Paulo Samba
John Neschling, Sao Paulo SO
Medici Arts 2057348
Just as New Year's Day is greeted in Vienna by the traditional concert by the Vienna Philharmonic, Sao Paulo, Brazil has their own tradition with their fine symphony orchestra. This is a DVD of the orchestra's 2008 greeting of the New Year. John Neschling leads the orchestra in a varied program, sometimes Brazilian classical, but with a few jazz numbers as well. I am swept away by the impromptu waltz Neschling does with vocalist Monica Salmaso and by the captivating and oh so rhythmic performance of Villa-Lobos’ “Choro No. 10.” It's impossible to watch this without becoming infected by the rhythmic swaying of the Sao Paulo Chorus. There's also the added bonus of not only hearing the acoustic of the Sala Sao Paulo, but also seeing this beautiful converted train station, maybe the best acoustic in South America.
18. Camargo Guarieri: Symphonies 1 & 4
John Neschling, Sao Paulo SO
If not for the efforts of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and their noteworthy recordings on the Bis label, we might never have the opportunity to know the significant symphonic output of several composers who are otherwise obscured by the shadow cast by Villa-Lobos. There are several volumes of symphonies by Camargo Guarnieri. If you like these, you will also want to seek out the symphonies by Francisco Mignone.
19. Mexico a traves de su Musica
Fernando Lozano, Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico
Before the Sao Paulo Symphony began to emerge as the finest orchestra in Latin America, the Mexico City Philharmonic might have made that claim. This ensemble was founded in 1978 by Fernando Lozano with a notable assist from Carmen López Portillo, Mexico's first lady at the time. Mexico in those days was rich with petro-dollars, allowing the newly formed orchestra to recruit a fine force of Mexican, American and European musicians. It was extraordinary. I know. I was there in the final half year of Lozano's first term as conductor. This recording was made as the orchestra journeyed on, uncertain if it would continue beyond López Portillo's presidency, or not. As we waited, we made 3 recordings of Mexican popular songs and waltzes. This was one of them. You can certainly find Respighi, or Sibelius, or Rachmaninoff by the orchestra in those days, and they surely will reveal the orchestra's rich sound. But this is a bit different and for that reason worth seeking out. The arrangements are often excellent and the playing is almost always very good.
20. Florencia en el Amazonas (Daniel Catán)
Patrick Summers, Houston Grand Opera
If Daniel Catán’s “Hija de Rappaccini” served as Catán’s first international calling card and “Il Postino” boosted him to international renown, “Florencia en el Amazonas” focused considerable attention on his emerging role as keeper of the Romantic flame. Can 20th Century opera really be this beautiful? The resounding yes is found in this work. The sweeping open scene will win over the most reluctant listener, and that beauty and grand operatic tradition continues until the final curtain. I had a conversation with Henry Fogel about this work, and he too was stunned by Florencia's power and emotional breadth. Great, great recording.
21. Astor Piazzolla: Tango Ballet
Gidon Kremer, Astor Quartet, Kremerata Baltica
Astor Piazzolla could have been a very good tanguero (one who plays tango) and he certainly practiced that career during his early years, joining the orchestra of the bandoneónist Anibal Troilo at the age of 17. But Piazzolla had ambition beyond tango. He studied with Alberto Ginastera, then went to Paris to work with Nadia Boulanger. It was Boulanger who encouraged him to continue writing music, but with his experiences in tango informing the way. The result was tango nuevo, a hybrid of traditional tango and contemporary composition. Piazzolla's music has wide range and appeals to a wide range of musicians. Gidon Kremer is one of numerous classical musicians to play and record Piazzolla's music. This is a fine representative of Kremer's deep respect for Piazzolla's compositions.
22. Los Tangueros
Emanuel Ax, Pablo Ziegler
Gidon Kremer is not the only well respected classical musician to find himself attracted to the music of Astor Piazzolla. Of course, there is the ever curious Yo-Yo Ma and his probings of these scores. But as successful, perhaps more so, is this collaboration between the true tanguero Pablo Ziegler and the classical master Emanuel Ax. This odd couple recording came about through the efforts of producer Ettore Stratta. He had a great respect for the work of Ziegler, who had worked closely with Piazzolla as his Quintet’s pianist. But Stratta wanted to couple Ziegler with another pianist with technical abilities which would match and complement Ziegler. The call was made to Ax, who agreed to a meeting. The sparks immediately flew as Ax listened to Ziegler play. A few months later Ziegler was back in New York with intricately made arrangements for 2 pianos. The project took flight and today makes for a wonderful listening experience.
23. Revueltas Centennial Anthology
There was often an undercurrent of competition between Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas, both important 20th Century Mexican composers. Poor Aaron Copland was caught in the middle. He was a very close friend with Chavez, but admired some, if not all, of Revueltas’ output. Finally, Chavez forced Copland’s hand and he had to declare that Chavez was the better composer. Over the decades, the music of both Chavez and Revueltas has continued to be much studied, admired and performed. This Centennial Anthology of Revueltas’ music, a 2 disc set, covers many of his most important scores with some fine and historically important performances. For example, Leopold Stokowski leads Revueltas’ “Sensemayá.” The set also includes what I regard as a Revueltas masterpiece, the “Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca,” plus an opportunity to hear another of Mexico’s finest orchestras, the Orquesta Sinfonica de Xalapa. They show off their famous brass section with Revueltas’ “Noche de los Mayas.”
24. Valses Mexicanos 1900
The music of Latin America so often complements the heart on the sleeve sentimentality of the people, whether from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba or Mexico. The bridge from the late 19th Century into the 20th, in Mexico, was filled with music of great sentimentality. Many Mexican composers realized that the waltz could express this perfectly. These waltzes were written with informal music making in mind. It was salon music, but in the best sense of the term. The ever inventive Cuarteto Latinoamericano picked up on this music of the heart and made their much admired recording of Mexican waltzes for the Dorian label. The quartet is augmented by various musical friends who contribute perfect additions to these performances, from the archaic sound of the psaltery to the resonant bass of Victor Flores.
25. Letters from Argentina (Lalo Schifrin)
David Shifrin, Lalo Schifrin
Aleph Records 35
I had long wondered about the similarities of the names Shifrin, the surname of one of the great clarinet players in New York, and Schifrin, the surname of the immensely successful Argentinean-born composer Lalo Schifrin. Then I found this recording, and another, with the two of them together and was able to put the puzzle together. Turns out they are somewhat distant cousins. Lalo’s branch of the family headed to Argentina when they left Europe. David’s landed at Ellis Island. They lived completely unaware of their kinship until one day Lalo was in New York, trying to call another of his Schifrin relatives on the phone. By blind luck, he ended up talking to the “other” Shifrin family. They talked long enough to realize they were cousins; Lalo was invited to dinner. From this serendipitous meeting a natural friendship formed between the clarinetist David and the composer Lalo. And, of course, David asked his cousin to write some music for him. He did and this is some of what he composed.
26. Gabriela Montero: Solatino
The Venezuelan-born pianist Gabriela Montero was in crisis regarding her career. She wasn’t sure if she should go on, or not. Gabriela took the problem to her mentor, Martha Argerich. They talked for a while before Martha suggested Gabriela keep at it, but that she also find her own voice. That voice turned out to be not only that of a concert pianist, playing Schumann, Grieg, and Beethoven, but also of one who could improvise. This skill has come to identify Gabriela Montero, who still invites audiences everywhere to participate in her concerts by suggesting themes upon which she creates improvisation. This album is exactly what it says it is. Gabriela plays some of her trademark music of the moment. Interestingly, Gabriela told me in an interview that she never repeated herself in these improvisations. Of course, here we get the same versions each time because of the static nature of recordings. Nevertheless, the spirit of creativity shines brightly throughout this disc.
27. Sentimiento Latino
Juan Diego Flórez, Miguel Harth Bedoya, Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra
Juan Diego Flórez is a well known figure in all of the major opera houses around the world. He has come to be known for his performances of "Ah! mes amis" (from Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment”) with its nine high C's. But Juan Diego Flórez also knows a good sentimental song when he sees one, and this recording is a collection of such songs from throughout Latin America. He and fellow Peruvian musician Miguel Harth Bedoya team up for heart on the sleeve performances of Agustin Lara’s “Granada,” Manuel Ponce’s “Estrellita,” and Maria Grever’s “Jurame.” For my money, the best track is “En mi viejo San Juan,” by Puerto Rico’s favorite son Noel Estrada.
28. Canciones Argentinas
Bernarda & Marcos Fink, Carmen Piazzini
Harmonia Mundi 901892
Not always is a Latin American artist identified with a Hispanic name. Such is the case with Bernarda Fink and her brother Marcos. Bernarda was born in Buenos Aires in 1955, to Slovenian parents. When she was 30, and already on a career track as a singer with a specialty in early Baroque opera, Bernarda returned to Europe. She continues to base her career from Austria. Nevertheless, she has never lost her affection for the great body of songs from numerous Argentinean composers. In this collection we find music of Carlos Guastavino, writer of hundreds of songs, as well as other little known, but vital composers, including Carlos Buchardo, Luis Gianneo, and Alberto Williams. There is even a set of three songs by Astor Piazzolla.
29. Gaspar Fernandez: Cancionero Musical
Teresa Paz, Ars Longa de la Havane
Thanks to the detective work of Dr. Robert Stevenson and his disciples, including San Antonio’s own SAVAE, we have a lot of music representative of the earliest amalgamation of the Old World and New Spain. Much of this music is breathing new life through historically informed yet musically sensitive performances from a number of early music specialists. The list could go on to considerable length here, and would include the landmark “Mexican Baroque” album by Chanticleer, several of SAVAE’s recordings, and the remarkably fresh recordings by Mexican recorder virtuoso and early music specialist Horacio Franco. All of these recordings and artists find their time on Itinerarios. But for the purpose of this list of (only) 30, I wanted to include a tip of the catalog of fine early music recordings by the French based label K617. I stumbled upon these while shopping in the great Mexican book and record store Ghandi. Finding this label can be problematic here in the States, for whatever strange reason, but it is always worth keeping an eye open. The catalog ranges from early music of Paraguay, spirituals from Brazil, and this recording of music by the important Gaspar Fernandez, a Portuguese organist who signed on to come to the New World. He worked his way from Guatemala to Oaxaca, Mexico and finally to Puebla, Mexico. As I say, any of the Latin American focused discs from K617 will be worth your attention. This one makes a good start.
30. Ottorino Respighi: Roman Festivals
Eduardo Mata, Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Why this recording as the final of this list of 30 great Latin American recordings? For a couple reasons, actually. First, it’s an outstanding disc, recorded in the wonderful acoustic of Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas. Second, this is emblematic of the selection process for Itinerarios. Every recording must have roots in Latin America. Here the roots are provided by the conductor Eduardo Mata. Third, I feel I owe a debt to Maestro Mata. I played this work with him back when I first migrated from the San Antonio Symphony to the Mexico City Philharmonic. It was late October of 1981. The orchestra was on the road, first to New York to play at the United Nations, then a concert at Kennedy Center 7 or 8 days later. However, there was a complication. Eduardo Mata was already scheduled to conduct the Philharmonic in Mexico City, between the UN and Kennedy Center dates. This was considered such an important concert that they brought the orchestra back home, just to play the Mata concert. I am so glad we did it. Mata was several steps above anyone else I had ever played for. He brought a presence to the podium which demanded attentive music making. He got it.
Several years later, Mata was again in Mexico to organize an ensemble which came to be called Solistas de Mexico. It was a hand picked group of musicians, built around the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. I still count myself as blessed to have been chosen as a member of Solistas, We made some wonderful music, all in a very intimate musical environment. I’m thankful to have had that opportunity, yet continually saddened by the untimely death of Maestro Mata in that plane crash in 1995. With many others I wonder, even as we celebrate 30 years of classical music on KPAC, what might the world of classical music be today were Eduardo Mata still alive, making music at the age of 70. I guess we will never know.
Listen to "Itinerarios" Sunday nights at 7:00 on KPAC 88.3 FM and KTXI 90.1 FM.