Heitor Villa-Lobos had a great deal of experience playing in street bands, he was also a cellist and had the opportunity to play in the Rio Opera Company, prior to the launching of his career as a composer. The diversity of these experiences must have profoundly affected his writing. Another important consideration when reflecting on the scope of his music, and particularly the chôro series, was his geographic location. He composed his early chôros in Brazil, however he wrote his last, Deux Chôros (bis) for violin and cello, while he was in Paris. And while Villa-Lobos remarked that he wanted to travel to Paris in 1923 only to exhibit his sound world, explicitly not to study classical compositions, it is hard to argue that when you look at the score there is a shift in his writing that cannot be ignored and cannot be explained unless you consider his experience as a musician living in the 1920’s Paris music scene.
When a listener reflects on the historical traditions of the genre, one will notice that, despite its modernity, the two chôros haven’t lost that very natural and spontaneous feeling: the major difference is that now the spontaneity is remarkably, and precisely dictated. It is hard to underestimate the influence that this chôro has had domestically in Brazil. While largely unknown outside of South America, the country’s greatest composers, including Villa-Lobos and Gnattali, all wrote in this genre. In fact Gnattali was quoted as saying the chôro was “the most sophisticated popular music in the world”.
Earlier this spring Duo-B was invited as visiting artists to present two of Villa-Lobos' chôros at the Experiencing Villa-Lobos: An International Festival hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University. We performed the Deux Chôros (bis), originally written for the violin and cello, alongside Hirono's transcription of the Chôro tipico, Villa-Lobos' first, written for the guitar. It was a premiere of sorts for her transcription, and we were thrilled we could present the work to an audience so interested and invested in the composer.
Attending such a festival provides a unique way of interacting with a composer's music: as a performer, we have the opportunity to be introduced to some of the latest research being done by musicologists around the globe. Hirono and I thoroughly enjoyed the incredible number of concerts offered; there were full concerts dedicated to his orchestral works, songs for voice, choir, string chamber music, guitar, and solo piano. Despite being one of the most prolific and influential Brazilian composers, his music is not performed as frequently as it should be and such festivals allow you to take in numerous performances and really grasp the diversity and richness of his music. The festival ended with a wonderful performance by the Cuarteto Latinamericano, a string quartet that has specialized in Villa-Lobos' music. Truly an inspiring performance and I had the chance to chat with the cellist of the quartet, Alvaro Bitran, before and after the concert.
In reflecting on our experiences at the festival, I came away with the realization that Hirono and I desire for our scholarship to profoundly inform our music-making. Learning cannot be about fact-finding in a vacuum and what we discover, or re-discover, will intersect with our technical execution and has the power to transfer one’s perspective and lead to a deeper appreciation and more heartfelt interpretation. I’ve found this to be the case in our work with this genre. When originally confronted with Villa-Lobos’ last chôro for violin and cello, I saw a modernist duo that seemed aggressive and hostile, with little intention of paying homage to native Brazilian folklore, but research has greatly softened our views and we hope you will appreciate the exuberance and freedom of the chôro tradition.