A younger contemporary of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Hekel Tavares (1896-1969) was largely self-taught as a composer, though he came from a musical family and was surrounded with music from childhood. He wrote prolifically for the theater - his songs were championed by a wide range of international artists, including Marian Anderson, and his song "Casa de caboclo" is still a standard in Brazil.
In 1934 he married the Brazilian writer Martha Dutra, with whom he wrote a children's operetta and several other works for children. He then began composing symphonic works that synthesized national and popular elements within a generally neo-romantic style. These included the symphonic poem André de Leão e o demônio de cabelo encarnado (André de Leon and the Red-Haired Demon) in 1935 and this Piano Concerto in 1938. (A companion piece, the Violin Concerto "In Brazilian Forms," was composed in 1960.)
The Piano Concerto received its premiere in 1939 from Antonietta Rudge, with the composer conducting. The following year Guiomar Novaes took up the Concerto, which also received U.S. performances by the Chicago Symphony, the NBC Symphony in New York, and the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. It was first recorded in 1952 by Felicja Blumenthal with the London Symphony Orchestra, Anatole Fistoulari conducting.
Each of the Concerto's three movements is identified with one of Tavares' "Brazilian forms." The first movement is a Modinha, a sentimental, popular song genre. The second is a Ponteio, the accompaniment for a type of improvised rhyming competition from northeastern Brazil, and the finale is a Maracatu, an Afro-Brazilian processional dance associated with Carnival in Pernambuco.
The opening movement begins with an introduction marked "Tempo di Batuque," referring to a percussion-based dance accompaniment. Indeed, the whole score is rich in percussion, including traditional instruments such as maracas, the afoché (another type of rattle), and the reco-reco (a wooden scraper). The Modinha itself is a liquid, sighing theme in minor mode, which contrasts sharply with a more crisply accented, rhythmic flourish in major. A little clarinet solo with a Gershwinesque glissando ushers in a condensed reprise. A fast coda of virtuosic give-and-take between the soloist and the orchestra closes the movement.
Pontos de desafio are challenge songs in which singers improvise over a repeating accompaniment, the ponteio. After a placid introduction, the second movement of Tavares' Piano Concerto features just this sort of form and texture, with several thematic "songs," often appearing in the orchestra over the piano accompaniment.
The Maracatu has its origins in the coronation celebrations of African kings, and the processional Carnival dance retains king, queen, and courtiers as characters. Tavares' movement reflects much of this, with a recitative-like introduction imitating the call-to-order of the dama-do-paço, the court mistress of ceremonies. The body of the movement features two slow, intense dances, which build in energy to a lively concluding dance of great exuberance and exaltation.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Director of Publications