A Bassist in Brazil:  Redux


Anthony Scelba

            January 2007



Brazil again!  It was to be my third trip to my fourth international musical event in that fascinating country, home of one of the world’s fastest growing economies.  This time, however, I was invited not to São Paulo or Brasilia or to a bustling city with a federal university like Belo Horizonte or Goiânia, but to small towns inland.  It was to the state of Ceará in the northeast that I was invited; the cities were Icó and Iguatu.  The event was II Festival Música de Câmara Centro Sul e Vale do Salgado.


I love Brazil.  I especially love Brazilians.  But I can hardly abide the trek to the country that this time would take 20 hrs.  The TAM flight would require overshooting Ceará by over 3 hrs, waiting for a transfer in São Paulo, and retracing the path north, adding some 8 hrs to the journey.  Nevertheless, I was flattered by the invitation that came by direction of the State Secretary of Culture, and I was confident that, since I was to present performances and masterclasses at an international event, Kean University would help fund the trip.


I accepted the invitation and only then learned that the State of New Jersey had imposed on all its universities a ban on the funding of international travel.  The unethical dealings by faculty members from the University of Medicine and Dentistry would end up costing me money for a flight to Brazil.


Until very recently, Kean had a Brazilian student who worked in the music office.  Glaucia Araujo’s parents are employed as diplomats for the Brazilian government.  Excited by my invitation, Glaucia telephoned her parents with the news.  They returned less enthusiasm:  Icó and especially Iguatu are small and very poor cities. 


The last time I was in Brazil, I spent time in Pirenópolis, also a small rather poor town inland.  I judged Brazil’s first national double bass performance competition there.  Pirenópolis had a lot of charm.  How bad could Icó and Iguatu be?  Well—suffice it to say, I have seen the Third World!


Iguatu, where the strings and “popular music” portions of the festival were located became my home base.  I lived there and was driven the 30 miles to Icó whenever the festival had special events there.  Icó was the location for the brass and woodwind groups.  It has considerable charm.  But Iguatu is uncompromisingly ugly.  It is also noisy, and in the equatorial sun of a January summer, blazingly hot.


The Brazilians did everything they could to make me comfortable in Iguatu.  I was given not the best room in the hotel, but the best room in the city.  Mine was a suite in fact:  I had an anti-room with an armoire, a large well air-conditioned bedroom with a refrigerator, telephone, TV, lots of closet space and a full modern bathroom.  I even had a balcony overlooking the bus station—the only balcony in the place.  This luxury cost the festival R$45 per night (c. $23 US).  I enjoyed this comfort while the Brazilian professors were packed into smaller, darker quarters three to a room at the total cost of R$38 per night.


Brazil insists that cultural festivals be held in the smaller, poorer cities in order to spread culture otherwise concentrated in few places.  To get government support (insufficient as that support is), festival organizers agree to out-of-the-way sites, often with inadequate facilities.


For the term of the festival, I was to give masterclasses each day, which ended up occupying me for at most 3 hrs at a time.  I had plenty of opportunity to witness other events.


I attended a masterclass conducted by James Alexander, violinist and professor at Louisiana State University.  One of the musicians who performed for Alexander was Matilde Fìllat, who works with the only professional orchestra in Ceará, a string orchestra called Orquestra de Câmara Eleazar de Carvalho.  Matilde is an 18-year-old violinist, half French and half Brazilian.  She is taking a year between finishing high school in France and attending university there to visit her father, the Brazilian-jazz flutist Heriberto Porto.  She is tall, thin, and—dare I say—strikingly beautiful.  Her picture will be posted on my website as soon as the photographer emails it to me from Brazil.  I shall put it there because—trilingual—Matilde was appointed to me as my personal interpreter.  For Alexander she performed the Ravel Sonata, and played rather elegantly.  This was good to hear because her orchestra performs with a slash and burn approach to string playing.


The first evening event of the festival was a performance of the Orquestra de Câmara Eleazar de Carvalho conducted by its music director, Márcio Landi.  The program began with Interlúdio – Forró Pesado by Irmãos Aniceto styled after the baião of northeastern Brazil.  The baião is one of traditional regional musics that continues to inspire its contemporary composers.  The program continued with Handel’s Concerto Grosso op. 6 no 5 in D, which they played heavily accented, sharply articulated, and with a wide Romantic vibrato, blissfully unaware of the recent trends in performance of Baroque music to imitate period instruments.  Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite and Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, op. 20 followed.  The concert was effective and very enthusiastically received by the audience, very proud of and excited by its orchestra.


The orchestra also performed this program in Icó but with Liduino Pitombeira’s Concerto for Piano, Strings, and Timpani replacing the Capriol Suite.  Pitombeira—more about whom in due course—is one of Brazil’s most prolific and fastest rising composers.  His concerto was brilliantly perform by his wife, Duda di Cavalcante, the first pianist resident in Ceará to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts degree, which she earned at LSU.  The concert was performed in the restored Teatro da Ribeira dos Icós, one of the oldest theatres in the country—small, wooden, and colonial.


When I was invited to the festival, no one there knew of my relationship with Eleazar de Carvalho, the namesake of Ceará’s Orquestra.  De Carvalho (1912-1996), a brilliant conductor and composer, is Brazil’s Leonard Bernstein.  He is the only Brazilian conductor to rise to exalted international status.   When I was a very young bassist breaking into the profession, I was called to play with the Pro Arte Orchestra that performed at Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island.  I remember much about de Carvalho’s exceptional concerts.  His personal demeanor was somewhat aloof, but he was nevertheless very respected by that tough New York freelance orchestra.  Whenever he passed me walking off the stage he would look at me and solfeg a passage from the double bass part of the piece just played.  It was his way of making a personal connection and I was fond of him for his gesture and his excellence.  The Pro Arte orchestra always performed extravaganzas:  I remember playing Le sacre du printemps for the first time under de Carvalho.  When we performed the Berlioz Requiem, with its massive forces of huge orchestra and chorus and four antiphonal brass ensembles, the only place big enough to accommodate the event was a local airplane hanger.  De Carvalho was born in Iguatu.


Musicians of the Orquestra de Câmara were heard twice more in evening concerts. Quarteto Cearense, a string quartet from the orchestra was joined by pianist José Carlos to perform Schumann’s magnificent Piano Quintet in Eb, op. 44.  Much could be criticized about the performance, but it had great energy and commitment, and any failings are mitigated by the fact that these are largely self-taught musicians. 


Ceará has not had the advantage of string teachers trained in the US and in Europe.  I was continually amazed by the level of accomplishment from musicians who learned almost exclusively from books and from gathering together in self-help groups.


The Orquestra de Câmara performs with a number of young musicians in their 20s who serve as apprentices before going on to become full members of the ensemble at full pay, a recompense that allows them a modest middle-class life.   Members of the Apprentice String Quintet performed Beethoven’s String Trio No. 1 in Eb, op. 3, and arrangements of Mendelssohn’s String Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 in C minor and D major.


In the Apprentice Quintet was an enormously talented 24-year-old bassist named Daniel.  Maestro Landi and Eilton Menezes, the orchestra’s Principal Double Bassist buttonholed me and asked me to devote special attention to this musician.  Working with Daniel became one of my main purposes at the Festival.  As I soon analyzed, his technical problems all grew from his not having an experienced teacher:  faulty vibrato technique, incorrect orientation of the right hand on the bow, not knowing how to practice effectively, etc.  I recommended to Daniel that he study with Fausto Borem, a friend of mine, and the finest double bass teacher in Brazil.  If he finds a way to make the economic sacrifice and moves the great distance to Fausto’s university, he can become one of Brazil’s leading musicians.


Other groups presented in evening concerts included two brass quintets that performed with percussion.  When they played arranged works like Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets in C, they functioned like brass quintets that one would encounter in the US.  When they performed “Brazilian popular music” they included percussion because rhythm is the essence of this art.


A word is needed here about MPB, the musicological term for Brazilian popular music used in that country.  As it was explained to me by Valéria Vieira, a singer, choral conductor, and guitarist, popular music does not mean in Brazil what it means in the US:  music of little or no lasting value produced for an undiscriminating mass market—the music of Britney Spears.  It refers instead to an art music derived from the popular and folk traditions of Brazil, associated with various regions of the country, often reflective of its colonial past, and performed in a popular context.  When Valéria played for me a piece by guitarist Raphael Rabello, I said:  “This could be played on a Concert Artist recital by Christopher Kenniff at Kean; it sounds to me like classical music.”  She answered, “exactly.”


“Popular music” of this artistic quality is as much art music as a good portion of works in our classical-music canon.  I once heard baritone Kurt Ollmann, in recital at Kean, describe the art song as one written to pre-existing poetry and the popular song as one written to new lyrics; but this is a distinction without a difference.  Schubert composed many songs to poems by Wilhelm Müller that are poetry no more exalted than the lyrics of Vinícius de Moraes or of Chico Buarque used for songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim (the renowned composer of Bassa Nova often called Tom Jobim).


Buarque, himself a distinguished songwriter and popular opera composer, often wrote lyrics that, in a cleaver, disguised manner, criticized the military junta that ruled Brazil until 1985.  In that sense he is Verdi reborn, a composer whose operas are full of nationalistic subterfuge.  Dictators are smart enough to know that they must suppress the arts, but not smart enough to know that their efforts to do so are futile.


Valéria sung for me Buarque’s song Eu te amo (I love you) that is exquisite and whose slithering chromaticism is as difficult to sing in tune as passages found in many Lieder by Hugo Wolf. 


One of the most interesting popular musical styles in Brazil is chôro (pronounced shoro, with a rolled R).  Chôro, somewhat like American ragtime, was created about the same time and also by ex-slaves.  It is played by an ensemble that includes guitar, cavaquinho (a small four-string guitar similar to a ukulele but tuned differently and played in a more sophisticated manner), sometimes woodwind instruments and piano, and percussion.  It is virtuosic, contrapuntal, and improvisatory in character.  Many Brazilian composers of art music including Heitor Villa-Lobos have used it.  A good representation of Brazilian Popular Music including chôro can be heard on Yo-Yo Ma’s recent hit CD Obrigado Brazil.


A chôro ensemble, called Gargalhada Choro Banda, lead by percussionist and composer Luizinho Duarte, performed the music of composer Radamés Gnattali, celebrating the centennial of his birth.  Luiznho dedicated a piece to me from the stage.  I seldom feel as important as when I am being treated deferentially in Brazil, and the Brazilians on this trip outdid themselves in their courtesy to me.


Two of the members of Gargalhada Choro Banda were Rebeca, the guitar player, and Luciana, the cavaquinho player.  I wanted to buy Matilde a present to thank her for all her work interpreting for me.   These lively and entertaining young women were kind enough to assist and take me on a shopping expedition.  It was a scorching hot afternoon, and good places to shop for gifts are in short supply in Iguatu.  We were nevertheless successful and had a good time traipsing in and out of the city’s meager shops.  Within minutes of my meeting them, it seemed like I had known these two musicians for years.  We had a number of good laughs.


A concert of special note that I heard in Icó was a tuba recital played by Joseph Skillen, Professor of Tuba at LSU.  His was a very impressive performance for its lyricism and musicality.  One of the works on the program was commissioned by Skillen from Liduino Pitombeira.  It is his two-movement Seresta No. 14 for Tuba and Piano, a work inspired by Brazilian sonorities and genres, and full of interest.


Pitombeira (b. 1962), as I’ve mentioned, is one of the brightest of Brazil’s young composers.  I had met him on the telephone before but in person for the first time when he picked me up at the airport in Fortaleza, capital of Ceará.  His Brazilian Landscapes for String Quintet was winner of the 2006 Kean University Chamber Music Composition Contest.  It is the sixth piece in a series that portrays the composer’s own impressions of his native land.  On March 7, Sharon Roffman, Victoria Stewart, Brett Deubner, Julie Albers and I will perform the World Premiere of Brazilian Landscapes No 6 at Kean University on our next Concert Artist Program recital. 


The work is the third of Pitombeira’s Brazilian Landscape pieces to win an international prize: he was given the 2003 MTNA-Shepherd Distinguished Composer of the Year Award for the first work in the series, and the 2006 Inter-American Music Award from Sigma Alpha Iota for the second. 


The three-movement piece he wrote for us, his opus 103, starts with a ponteio, which is a type of prelude established by Camargo Guarnieri—after Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest composer.  Modal scales and rhythms from Ceará are the basis for the entire first movement.  This movement connects with the second, which is a lament that uses elements inspired by the modinha, a love song originating in Portugal. 


The last movement, “Forrobodó,” is a very energetic dance of African influence that employs elements of the Brazilian national dances of samba and baião.  A forrobodó itself is a kind of musical celebration as is Pitombeira’s entire piece.  To organize his finale melodically, Pitombeira brings back a tuneful element that evolved in the first movement, only to be fully stated toward its end.  Rhythmically the finale is full of subtle shifts and cross accents and what are called “metric modulations.” 


Pitombeira has assimilated in his music the traditional rhythms of Brazil.  He adds to this, modernist and post-modernist elements without ever losing musical beauty.  As an interesting twist, he has written four alternate endings for the piece; the performers choose which one to play.  You can hear us perform one of them on March 7.  If you wish to hear the others you will have to come to hear this wonderful piece again when we play repeat performances of it in years to come in Kean’s soon-to-be-built chamber music recital hall. 


Unlike at Kean, all concerts in Ceará are lecture recitals.  The talks provide the only music education imparted to many of these people.  The public schools there offer no music education at all.  Speakers at concerts always begin their talks with the statement “Good evening, audience” to which the audience dutifully responds en masse “Good evening.”  It is very charming.


And evenings are good in Iguatu.  They are slightly cooler.  To get the night air, I would often walk the half-mile or so to the building that held our concerts.  Iguatu is a safe city, free of the crime that plagues the metropolises of Brazil.  The only danger I faced in walking to and from concerts at night was dodging the mototaxis.  Taxicabs are a luxury that people in Iguatu cannot afford.  In place of normal taxis they use mototaxis:  motor scooters licensed to take passengers.  Mototaxis must be carefully regulated because each driver always wears a helmet and a numbered pea-green vest.  The irony is that the passengers—sometimes even one carrying luggage and a baby—never wear a helmet.


My own performance at the festival was cancelled because I did not risk flying with one of my precious double basses, and the event organizers were unable to find me a decent instrument to play.  Poor quality stringed instruments are the norm in Brazil and the lack of good instruments is a serious problem there.  Even instruments made by Brazilian luthiers are unaffordable to most Brazilian musicians.  The double basses brought to the festival by students and professionals alike were very substandard.


My work at the festival then concentrated on a series of masterclasses given each morning.  The great challenge in these classes was aiming my teaching:  in the double bass class were three professionals and four beginners.  They were all self-taught or beginning study without teachers.  All were enthusiastic to learn.  I demonstrated often in these sessions and whenever I played students of other instruments would wander in to the room to listen.  Classical musicians in the poorer regions of Brazil are starved for instruction.  It was in these classes that Matilde interpreted for me.  Her assistance was a godsend.


I have had much good fortune in my pursuit of a musical career.  It felt good to give something back.  I think my teaching was very effective in Iguatu. 


After the festival finished all the professors were bused back to Fortaleza.  There I reentered the first world and was installed in a very good seaside hotel.


In the capital, I spent two days with Liduino and his wife Duda.  Sometimes we were joined by Rebeca, my old shopping pal.  I was given tours of the historic and beautiful colonial concert hall and the music and research departments and facilities of the State University of Ceará (where Duda teaches) and the Federal College (where Liduino may soon teach).  On my last day, we spent the morning at one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.  It was a wonderful trip, and I’m already dreaming of an opportunity to visit—Brazil again!




Anthony Scelba (www.AnthonyScelba.com) is a Professor at Kean University where he is Chair of the Department of Music and Director of its Concert Artist Program.   He and the Concert Artist Faculty give an 8-concert recital series at the University annually.  Their performance with the World Premiere of Brazilian Landscapes No. 6 will be held in the Wilkins Theatre on the main campus on Wednesday, March 7, at 8:00 PM.