Friday, March 28, 2008

Review: Villa-Lobos festival

March 27, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond

If someone were to tell me that Heitor Villa-Lobos’ "Rudepoema," a 22-minute-long hunk of early modern uneasy listening solo-piano music comparable to a similar stretch of, say, Bartók or Janáček, would utterly transfix a crowd of not especially highbrow members of the iTunes generation, my reflexive response would be, "No way."

That’s what happened, though, at the end of the opening-night concert of "Experiencing Villa-Lobos," Virginia Commonwealth University's festival devoted to Brazil’s preeminent composer. Pianist Sonia Rubinsky performed before about 300 students and perhaps a third as many older listeners; she had them, all of them, engrossed, as few performers of any music can accomplish with any crowd.

Rubinsky, a formidable artist last heard in these parts playing Mozart, spent her formative years in Brazil and knows Villa-Lobos’ piano works as well as any musician. (She’s recording a complete edition for Naxos.)

"Rudepoema" may be the toughest nut of the canon. Villa-Lobos wrote it as a showpiece for and quasi-character sketch of Arthur Rubinstein in the 1920s, when that long-lived pianist was at his most flamboyantly virtuosic. The piece’s technical challenges are comparable to those of Ravel’s "Gaspard de la Nuit." Its musical language suggests some sort of culture-crossing "Fitzcarraldo" scenario – Scriabin on the Amazon, maybe.

Rubinsky worked her way up to "Rudepoema" with fluent, idiomatic performances of "A Lenda do Caboclo" (1920), Villa-Lobos’ lyrical, swaying evocation of Brazilian peasant dance, and two excerpts from "Ciclo Brasileira" (1936), the audibly Latin but somehow Chopinesque "Impressões Seresteiras" ("Impressions of a Serenade Musician") and percolatingly energetic "Dansa do Índio Branco" ("Dance of the White Indian"). She encored with the "Choros" No. 5 ("Alma brasileira").

The opening half of the concert was highlighted by Lisa Edwards-Burrs, a soprano based at Virginia State University, performing "Poema da Criança e sua Mama" ("Poem of the Child and its Mother") with flutist Kristen Kean, clarinetist Roland Karnatz and cellist Nathan Jasinski and, with pianist Dmitri Shteinberg, six pieces from "Modinhas e Canções," a cycle from the 1930s based on folk and popular songs.

Although not fluent in Portuguese, Edwards-Burrs showed she had the stylistic grasp and, more essentially, the emotional measure of these songs. She made a dramatic soliloquy of "Poema da Criança" and a joyous exercise in coloratura of "Manda tiro, tiro, lã" ("I Send for It"). And one might have thought that Villa-Lobos wrote the more soulful "Canção do Marinheiro" ("Sailor’s Song") and "Vida Formosa" ("Beautiful Life") with her voice in mind.

The program opened with Kean and Jasinski playing one of the composer’s best-known miniatures, "Assobio a Jato" ("The Jet Whistle"). Kean and Karnatz made fine work of another miniature, the samba-inflected "Choros" No. 2.

"Experiencing Villa-Lobos" continues on March 28 with simultaneous concerts of chamber and vocal music at 11:30 a.m. in Vlahcevic Concert Hall of VCU’s Singleton Arts Center and Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church; a young performers’ concert at 3:30 p.m., choral-vocal concert at 5 p.m. and orchestral-choral concert at 8 p.m., all in Vlahcevic Hall. March 29 events include a guitar concert at 3:30 p.m., a chamber-music program at 5:30 p.m., a concert by Cuarteto Latinoamericano at 8 p.m., and a screening of the 1959 film "Green Mansions," scored by Villa-Lobos, at 10 p.m., all in Vlahcevic Hall. Ticket information: (804) 828-6776,