Program Notes

Anniversary Fiesta

An American Composer’s Perspective on Wieniawski, Lalo, Ponce, Sarasate, Mariachis & Himself

For Hector Guzman: Celebrating 35 Years, Nov. 18, 2017

© Robert Xavier Rodríguez [read bio]

Tonight’s concert honors the 35th anniversary of Maestro Hector Guzman’s appointment as Music Director of the Plano Symphony Orchestra.  The music is festive, and, appropriately, most of the pieces have a Latin flavor.  The program features a concert overture by this writer plus virtuoso music for violin and orchestra by 19th-century Polish, French, Mexican and Spanish composers, followed by selections from the Mariachi Los Camperos.

The Orange County Performing Arts Center commissioned my Hot Buttered Rumba (1996) for a gala celebrating the Center’s tenth anniversary.  The Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Carl St. Clair conducting, gave the premiere.  The orchestration includes thirty-six percussion instruments.

Hot Buttered Rumba celebrates the traditional Afro-Cuban dance rhythm with accents on one, four and seven in an eight-beat pattern.  There are alternating variations on two related themes:  first minor, then major. In a contrasting middle section, the driving rumba rhythm begins to waver and burp in a playfully disjunct depiction of the intoxicating influence of the beverage which gives the work its title.  (It is said that, “Rum is the drink that makes you see double and feel single.”)  After more tipsy wobbles, the rumba regains its former footing, and the themes combine in a layer cake.  There is a wild outburst of orchestral glissandi, and the rumba roars to a gleeful conclusion. 

Violinist-composer Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880) was the Polish counterpart of the Spanish violinist-composer Pablo Sarasate (1844-1908), whose music will also be heard tonight.  Like his Russian contemporary Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski wrote in an international European style rather than the nationalistic styles favored by many European composers of his generation.  Wieniawski had the distinction of sharing a patron (Nadezhda von Meck) with Tchaikovsky and Debussy, and he was honored posthumously in his homeland by a postage stamp, a coin and a bill of currency bearing his picture.  If the United States were enlightened to the extent of putting pictures of our composers on our money instead of politicians, then George Gershwin would be on the one-dollar bill and Aaron Copland would be on the five.

Wieniawski began sketches for his Polonaise Brillante No. 1, Op. 4 in D Major when he was 13 years old.  He finished it five years later, in versions for violin and orchestra and violin and piano.  A Polonaise (French for “Polish”) is a 17th-century dance form in triple meter at a stately tempo with an eighth note and two sixteenth notes on the first beat.  Polonaises appear in the music of composers from Bach to Chopin to Tchaikovsky and beyond.  Wieniawski’s setting glows with good humor and plenty of virtuosic flash.

Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole in D minor, Op. 21 for violin and orchestra (1874) is neither a symphony nor Spanish.  It is a five-movement French violin concerto flavored with Spanish musical gestures.  Of Spanish descent, French composer Édouard Lalo (1823-1892) was something of a “one-hit wonder.”  Although he composed many other works, including a cello concerto and the opera Le roi d'Ys, Lalo remains best-known by the Symphonie Espagnole.  Lalo wrote the concerto for the Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate, whose dashing personality and colorful style are believed to have inspired the Spanish cast of Lalo’s music.  With its premiere a month before Bizet’s Spanish-flavored opera Carmen, the Symphonie Espagnole was the first of a wave of other popular 19th-century works in Spanish style by French and Russian composers, including Chabrier’s España, Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol.  By the middle of the 20th century, Spanish composers Enrique Granados (1867–1916) and Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) had brought Spanish music back to Spain.

The first movement of Symphonie Espagnole alternates a stern opening theme with a lyrical counter melody.  The music has a gypsy/flamenco flavor with a characteristically Spanish alternation of duplets and triplets.  A scherzo tiptoes in pizzicato, and the music builds to create the atmosphere of a Spanish fiesta.  In the third movement, a brusque orchestral introduction leads to a seductive Intermezzo, which pushes the languorous off-beat accents of an habanera to the brink of tango.  There follows a melancholy fourth movement which exploits the violin’s sensuous low register.  The blazing Finale features a highly-syncopated Spanish version of a jig (similar to a jota), punctuated by clanging bell sounds.  A gentler, more lyrical middle section provides contrast before the opening material returns and the music surges to the coda.

Mexican composer Manuel Ponce (1882 -1948) was known both as a composer and as a musicologist who specialized in the traditional music of his native country.  A musical prodigy, at the age of four, he was said to be able to repeat difficult works at the piano after only hearing them once.  Also, it was Ponce who arranged Bach’s first cello suite for guitar for Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia, opening the way for Segovia’s own legendary series of transcriptions. 

Like Lalo, Ponce is best-known for only one work: the 1912 song “Estrellita” (Little Star), for which he also wrote the lyrics.  The music is in a sentimental, 19th-century style, with a slow, distinctly Viennese, waltz-like lilt.  The melody became instantly popular throughout the musical world.  Later in life, Ponce, looked nostalgically back at his earlier success and quoted “Estrellita” in his Violin Concerto, written five years before his death.  Tonight’s performance features the 1923 arrangement by violinist Jascha Heifetz, who reportedly heard the melody in a café in Mexico City on the eve of a recital, wrote it down on a napkin, made the arrangement that night and performed it the next day.

The Spanish town of Pamplona is known both as the home of the yearly running of the bulls through the streets and as the birthplace of the violinist-composer Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908).  As a violinist, Sarasate gave the premieres of Édouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole and Camille Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  Bruch and Dvořák also dedicated pieces to him

Sarasate’s own music is idiomatically crafted in the Paganini tradition of virtuoso display, especially in his Carmen Fantasy, based on Bizet’s opera, and in tonight’s popular Ziguenerweisen (Gypsy Airs).  The Gypsy Airs come in four sections, with a brooding, paprika-spiced opening in moderate tempo, decorated with sour cream and followed by two lyrical sections and a short, dazzling finale.  The normally prickly playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw was taken by Sarasate’s spell, and he wrote that his music “left criticism gasping miles behind him.”

Mariachi is intoxicating and quintessentially Mexican, but the music actually represents an international synthesis of styles.  The word “mariachi” is believed to be derived from the French word “mariage,” because in Mexico, small groups of musicians were and are regularly employed to perform at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations.  To this day, in Mexico City, all the mariachis in town gather at the famous Plaza de Garibaldi to audition for prospective clients and to haggle over the price of an engagement.  All the groups play at the same time, and the head-spinning ring of the resultant cacophony is a transcendent experience.  The use of a French word for mariachi demonstrates the predilection for European and, particularly French, culture that prevailed in Mexico in the middle of the 19th century, when the French government militarily supported the Austrian Emperor Maximillian, who ruled Mexico from 1864 to 1867.

During that brief period, the music of Mexico became infused with many of Maximillian’s favorite European genres, such as waltzes and polkas.  As with “Estrellita,” some Mexican waltzes and polkas have become interchangeable with their Viennese counterparts.  Another example is the famous 1888 waltz “Over the Waves,” which many people think was written by one of the Strauss family.  Actually, “Sobre las olas” is by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas, and it is the best-known piece of Latin-American music in the world.  The composer did not get his picture on a peso, but he did receive the honor of having a town in Mexico named for him.  An important difference between Mexican and Austrian music is, of course, the prominent use of trumpets in Mexico.  Legend has it that the trumpet became an essential element of mariachi music when there was a particularly rambunctious wedding and only the trumpet player remained sober enough to play throughout the evening.

When most people think of mariachi music, they think of the exhilarating Jalisco style of Guadalajara.  The singers and trumpets (in thirds) project at a bracing volume, and there are violins, guitars (small, middle and large) and sometimes contrabass.  The players, mostly male, are dressed as charros (Mexican horsemen) with over-sized sombreros and silver-studded suits.  The music is harmonically simple, sometimes with a single chord progression, repeated with variations in the manner of a Baroque chaconne.  There are also frequent alternations and layerings of duple and triple rhythms in opposition.  Songs are called “sones,” which generally consist of a verse (verso) and a refrain (estrebillo).  From Spain, by way of medieval Arabic singers, come the famous “gritos,” or shouts, such as “¡Ay!” to punctuate the music.

Related styles include the marimba tradition in Chiapas and the lighter and more rhythmically complex Jarocho music of Veracruz, which has no trumpets.  The performers --- singers, violins, guitars, harps and light Afro-Cuban percussion --- dress in white shirts, white pants and sandals.  In Jarocho songs, the singers often improvise the words in playful, sometimes irreverent, couplets.  Texts are generally about new love, lost love, love of country, love of nature or, in the case of “La Bamba,” the most famous Jarocho song, love of nonsense.  The rowdy, Northern “Tejano” style introduces tuba and accordion, and the players’ outfits include Stetsons, cowboy boots and red bandanas.  In this context, a signature Mexican canción ranchera such as “Allá en el rancho grande” magically shifts nationalities to create a perfect evocation of swinging beer steins for an “oom-pa“ Oktoberfest polka. 

Robert Xavier Rodríguez has served as Composer-in-Residence for the Dallas Symphony and the San Antonio Symphony.  He holds an Endowed Chair in Art and Aesthetic Studies and is University Professor and Director of the Musica Nova ensemble at the University of Texas at Dallas. His 131 compositions are published by G. Schirmer.