A single concert experience knocked Felipe Lara off of his projected career path. Born in Brazil, Lara came to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, planning to study improvisation, guitar, and jazz arrangement. One night in 2000, he found himself at Symphony Hall for a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s massive “Turangalila Symphony” by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa.
“That really changed things for me,” Lara said recently by phone. He promptly switched majors, eventually graduating from Berklee with a degree in composition. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Tufts University and a doctorate from New York University. He’s now a highly regarded young composer whose portfolio includes commissions from the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Arditti Quartet.
Lara pointed out that many prominent Latin American composers of the early 20th century became known for incorporating the folk idioms of their respective countries into their music. To judge from the works on the new recording, though, the composers of áltaVoz take their bearings from abstract, less figurative sources. Lara’s “Tran(slate)” is a reworking of a piece for quartet and electronics, in which the processes that control the studio-generated sounds have been translated into colorful and energetic textures for the strings.
Hurtado’s “L'ardito e quasi stridente gesto” moves from breathless, eruptive gestures to an uneasy stillness, while Pauly’s “Every New Volition a Mercurial Swerve,” has tough, wiry sounds that build and subside in irregularly shaped peaks and valleys. Next to these, Grossmann’s Third Quartet is contemplative and, in its pizzicato middle movement, almost playful, with subtle tonal inflections. The occasional sonic similarity aside, these are four composers with resolutely distinct voices and strategies.
So what, if anything, links them today? What might underlie a Latin American avant-garde? Lara avoids easy answers, though he does think of the idiom as being “inherently cosmopolitan. For us, the entire career was kind of outside our native birthplace.” That’s because many of those countries lack not only a tradition of new music, but also the performers anxious to tackle it.
“At least in Brazil, I can say, there’s really not a lot of new music ensembles, or even players, who are interested or willing to play more challenging new music,” he explained. “There’s a lot of people doing electroacoustic music in Latin America, but it’s very hard to write acoustic music and have it performed, like you see in Boston or New York — they have young groups of phenomenal musicians very hungry to play and present all kinds of new music.”
Like, for example, the JACK Quartet, which Lara praises highly and compares to the Arditti Quartet, a group that premiered “Tran(slate)” and, more broadly, set the standard for a contemporary-music string quartet years ago. “If you think of the Arditti Quartet, whom I’m crazy about, they have that explosive, fiery sound that is kind of a trademark. And the JACK can have that sound if you want them to, but they also have this really refined, classical controlled sound that I love.”