FUNNY, the things you remember.
Looking forward to this year's Inter-American Music Festival, which opened last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, I think first of Alberto Ginastera. Since it was established, this festival has helped transform the Argentine composer from a virtual unknown into one of the best-known composers in the world.
It's no surprise that I remember well the first music by Ginastera heard in the festival--no way can I forget it. When the Juilliard String Quartet got through playing his second String Quartet at the Library of Congress on that bright April morning in 1958, and the audience stood up and cheered, it was crystal clear that a bright new star had appeared. And it was just as clear that the sun was setting for Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose 15th String Quartet was on the same program. He was to die the next year.
But despite Ginastera and the dozens of lesser known composers of the hemisphere who were championed by Maestro Guillermo Espinosa and those who helped him assemble the first half dozen festivals, what my memory cherishes most was the shenanigans.
Take the third (1965) festival, for example. For some reason, I decided to take in the whole thing--that is, to hear all 39 works (30 world premieres) by 37 composers from 13 countries that were being offered. Eight concerts were scheduled during six days. In those days, I had a bigger appetite for novelty, and I thought my Washington Star readers were entitled to know what I thought of the marathon.
Things went along more or less normally for the first six events, although I must confess that I was beginning to experience a certain amount of brain fatigue and writer's cramp by the time I reached Cramton Auditorium on a warm May evening to attend the concert presented by the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by Lukas Foss. The rest of the audience was apparently not in the best of shape either.
Foss had been arguing with Howard University officials all through the day about the auditorium's noisy air conditioning system. He insisted that the hum made it impossible for the musicians to hear each other and for the audience to hear the complicated music he was supposed to conduct that evening. He had a point, but the authorities were adamant about keeping the system operating. Perhaps a bit more familiar with Washington's humidity and audiences than Foss, they pointed out that he could (a) conduct without air conditioner and, as a consequence, without audience, or (b) conduct with air conditioner, noise and all, with people present to hear what they could. Reluctantly, Foss picked alternative b.
The concert began with the air conditioning system going full blast, but during the second piece on the program, a wispy triptych for baritone and 11 instruments by Hector Tosar of Uruguay titled "Stray Birds," it was turned off.
Even though it wasn't a scorcher of an evening, the room temperature went up 10 degress within minutes.
As soon as the Tosar was over, the system was turned on again--and Howard University's guardians of the audience's comfort left the building.
When Foss returned to work, the hum was quite audible. The scheduled number was a quiet post-Webernian piece by Celso Garrido-Lecca of Peru called "Laudes." About halfway into the piece, Foss stopped the orchestra and announced that in justice to the music he could not continue until the air conditioning was shut off. He then waited for something to happen. Nothing happened.
Having nothing better to do, Foss sat down on the podium and began to chat with one of the first desk players. Still nothing happened. Foss dispatched an envoy backstage to find out what was causing the delay. Hissing and booing came from the audience, along with cries of "Play! Play!" Some walked out of the hall.
When it finally became clear that the air conditioning was going to continue to run, Foss declared an intermission. Ultimately, the concert was resumed (with air conditioning obbligato) right in the middle of "Laudes" with Foss boiling, but with the audience continuing cool. Poor Garrido-Lecca sort of got lost in the shuffle.
By and large, the Inter-American Music Festivals have taken themselves very seriously, and such adventures in piquancy have been few and far between. Pity.
Since the festival has become an annual rather than a triennial affair, there has been a certain change in style. Harold Boxer, the current general director, prefers less emphasis on world premieres, and more concentration on what might be termed Inter-American musical culture, including such lighter fare as steel bands and folk-oriented attractions. The result has been growing audiences and considerably less musical indigestion.
This year's festival--the 14th in the series--continues the mixture much as before. It looks quite palatable, if somewhat lengthy, and certainly, the price is right--all concerts are free. I expect to be there, as usual, enjoying myself and learning something about what's going on in music in this hemisphere. But I don't think I'll try to take in everything this time--I learned my lesson back in 1965.