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Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos was part of a generation of Latin-American composers who delved deeply into their country’s histories and folklores to find a specifically national musical voice. (Carlos Chávez, Alberto Ginastera, and, to a lesser extent, Silvestre Revueltas were also part of this cohort.) As a child, Villa-Lobos learned to play the cello and the clarinet from his father, an amateur musician who died when Heitor was eleven. Uninterested in pursuing a formal musical education, Villa-Lobos instead taught himself guitar and started playing in a street band in Rio de Janeiro. At sixteen, he joined a theater orchestra as a cellist and also played in a cinema orchestra, immersing himself in popular music and music theater for two years.

At eighteen, Villa-Lobos set out for Brazil’s interior. He spent the next decade traveling extensively exploring the Amazon and encountering the rich folk music traditions of his country. The five years that followed were a period of intense creativity and also witnessed the affirmation of Villa-Lobos’ reputation as Brazilian classical music’s leading new voice. Concerts of his music were met with scathing reviews from reactionary, old-guard critics, which only increased interest in his music. In 1923, after participating the year before as music’s representative in Brazil’s “Week of Modern Art,” Villa-Lobos went to Paris with the help of several influential friends and a government stipend. There, he met Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Varèse and achieved a level of acclaim won by no other Latin-American composer in Europe before or since. When he returned for good to Brazil in 1930, he was Brazilian music’s leading figure and a celebrity in international music circles.

Villa-Lobos never forgot his “musical education” – the Rio street bands, the trips to the Amazon, and the music of the movie halls and theaters of his teen-age years. He fused these diverse influences into a powerfully nationalist musical voice.

Villa-Lobos composed Assobio a Jato (The Jet Whistle) in New York in 1950. The composer named his work to describe the technique he calls on the flutist to use during its last movement. To produce the effect, the player blows directly and forcefully into the flute with his or her mouth almost covering the mouthpiece. Combined with a glissando, the resulting whistle sounds like a jet taking off.

This finale is preceded by an opening Allegro non troppo, where the cellist and flutist alternate between one playing a folk-like melody while the other accompanies insistently, and a lyrical Adagio slow movement.

-- John Mangum