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27 October 2011

Festival Interamericano de las Artes and the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra

Andrián Pertout in Puerto Rico Image: Andrián Pertout in Puerto Rico  

It was on his second voyage to the 'New World,' begun in the south-western Spanish port city of Cádiz on 25 September 1493, that Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), together with seventeen ships and more than a thousand men, landed on the island of Puerto Rico on 19 November that same year. As a tribute to Saint John the Baptist, the island - part of the Greater Antilles, and located in the north-eastern Caribbean - was initially named 'San Juan Bautista.' In time, this designation was attributed to the port, with the island adopting the name of 'Puerto Rico' or 'Rich Port.'

Spanish Rule continued in the archipelago until 1898, when the United States' invasion of the territory then deemed it as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Today, even though granted autonomy in 1952, as a territory of the United States its political status remains ambiguous. Puerto Ricans, or Puertorriqueños - who principally speak Spanish and number about four million people, making Puerto Rico one of the most densely populated islands in the world - are legal US citizens, but pay no federal income tax, and do not vote in presidential elections. The capital city of Puerto Rico is San Juan, or 'Municipio de la Ciudad Capital San Juan Bautista,' and dates back to 1521, representing the second oldest city established by the Europeans in the Americas after Santo Domingo (the capital city of the Dominican Republic, which is located on the island of La Hispaniola).

This is the setting for the 'Festival Casals de Puerto Rico', which was founded in 1956 by eminent Spanish Catalán cellist, conductor and composer Pablo Casals (1876-1973) - 2011 marking its 55th season. Casals, who is regarded as one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, is best known for bringing prominence to J. S. Bach's Cello Suites, a work he discovered at the age of thirteen, and a work considered too 'academic' and 'dry' for audiences by his peers in the early part of the century. Casals fled Spain as a consequence of the Spanish Civil War of 1936 and the ensuing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, and eventually moved permanently to Puerto Rico (the birthplace of his mother) in 1957.

As well as establishing the Festival Casals in 1956, Casals also went on to establish the Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico (or Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra), which presented its inaugural concert in 1958 in Mayagüez with Casals as conductor and José (Pepito) Figueroa as concertmaster (Figueroa remaining in that position until 1990). Today, the artistic director of the Festival Casals is conductor Maximiano Valdés, who is also music director and principal conductor of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, and artistic director of the Festival Interamericano de las Artes.

Valdés was the music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica del Principado de Asturias in Spain for sixteen years, and his recent engagement with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra now presents him with an ideal base due to the island's relative proximity to the United States, Latin America and Europe. The present home of the orchestra is a $34-million building designed by Rodolfo Fernandez, a part of the San Juan Centro de Bellas Artes complex.

I was very pleased when Maximiano Valdés contacted me earlier this year with an invitation to participate in the '2011 Festival Interamericano de las Artes', where the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra would perform three programs dedicated to the music of the Americas. He selected my orchestral work Bénédiction d'un conquérant for symphony orchestra, no. 390 (2004) to be featured in the second concert along with other works by Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon (Mexico), Rafael Aponte Ledeé (Puerto Rico), Celso Garrido Lecca (Peru) and Carlos Carillo (Puerto Rico).

The work was originally composed for the Tasmanian Symphony Oorchestra and received its Latin American premier in 2006 in Rio de Janeiro by the Orquestra Petrobrás Sinfônica (one of the oldest and most prestigious orchestras in Brazil). And more recently, the Canberra Youth Orchestra, conducted by Dominic Harvey (featuring the very talented concertmaster Natalia Harvey - Michael Kieran Harvey's niece), actually performed my Symphonie de guerre for the first time. This two-movement 'War Symphony' (which philosophically represents not only a personal statement in condemnation of the general act of war, but a collective reaction encompassing the artistic world at large) includes L'assaut sur la raison for Symphony Orchestra together with Bénédiction d'un conquérant. In 2004, L'assaut sur la raison was recognised with both the APRA Award for Orchestral Composition (3MBS FM National Composer Awards) and the Louisville Orchestra Prize in the United States, receiving its world premiere by the Louisville Orchestra at the Indiana State University 38th Annual Contemporary Music Festival.

The first orchestral concert in the '2011 Festival Interamericano de las Artes' on the other hand would be dedicated to composers from the United States, and included Cindy McTee's Adagio for Strings (2002), Philip Glass's Violin Concerto (1987) and two movements from John Adams's Naive and Sentimental: Mother of the Man and Chain to the Rhythm (1999). Cindy McTee, incidentally, was the recipient of the Louisville Orchestra Prize in 2001.

And just when one was beginning to delight in the stunning surroundings of the original fortified five-hundred-year-old capital of old San Juan, with its narrow cobblestone streets and multicoloured Spanish Colonial houses, hurricane Irene decided to make its appearance, uninvited, with its category two torrential rains and winds. Governor Luis Fortuno declared a state of emergency, schools and businesses were forced to close, a million people found themselves with no electricity, and the programming of the festival was, to no surprise, in disarray.

I found myself in a hotel with no windows, no electricity, no telephone, and no internet for days. Two rehearsals with the orchestra were cancelled, and in the third scheduled rehearsal (the first actual rehearsal) it was decided that the performance of my work would not take place that following day. In spite of this, the concert was saved by Chilean guitarist Luis Landini, who not only performed a magnificent rendition of the scheduled Celso Garrido Lecca's Guitar Concerto (1990), but also compensated for the abbreviated programming by performing solo in the second half with music by Villa-Lobos, Grieg, Albéniz, and the Chilean Juan Antonio Sánchez. Upon being given the option of either returning in 2012 or rebooking my flight in order to be around for the third orchestral concert, I opted for the latter, which turned out to be an incredibly sound decision - with the glorious weather that followed I even got an opportunity to swim in the ocean.

The third orchestral concert of the '2011 Festival Interamericano de las Artes' took place on the first of September and featured music by Astor Piazzolla (Argentina), Silvestre Revueltas (Mexico) and Julián Orbón (Cuba), with one of the highlights being long-time collaborator of Piazzolla and extraordinary bandoneón player Daniel Binelli from Buenos Aires, who performed his Concierto para bandoneón (1979) with great finesse and ardour.

My work Bénédiction d'un conquérant was received with much enthusiasm, with the crowd not only cheering wildly at the onset of the performance after being recounted the story of my initial misfortunes and my decision to 'stick it out' in 'La Isla del Encanto' - or the 'Enchanted Island' as this tropical paradise is known - but also applauding rapturously the anti-war message of my work. All in all, it can be stated that the experience proved to be a total success, and an experience that has left me with fond memories of charming old San Juan as well as the enormous talent, dedication and enthusiasm of the musicians of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra.

AMC resources

Andrián Pertout - AMC profile
'An Australian in Santiago de Chile' - a blog article by Pertout on Resonate (15 December 2010)

Further links

Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico (www.sinfonicapr.gobierno.pr/)
'El guitarrista chileno Luis Orlandini actuará mañana junto a la Sinfónica de Puerto Rico' - a news article, Noticias Univisión Costa Central (24 August 2011)
2011 Festival Casals de Puerto Rico (www.festcasalspr.gobierno.pr/)

Andrián Pertout is a freelance composer. His music has been performed in over thirty countries around the world. He is currently the Australian Delegate of the ACL (Asian Composers’ League), President of the Melbourne Composers’ League, as well as Honorary Fellow at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (University of Melbourne) and National Academy of Music (Thessaloniki, Greece).


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