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Julián Orbón was born in Avilés in the northern Spanish region of Asturias, but spent much of his life in Cuba, heavily involved with the promotion of Cuban musical nationalism. Although he finally settled in New York, Orbón retained his Spanish nationality, considering himself Asturian, Spanish and Cuban. The masterfully orchestrated works on this recording embrace an eclectic yet unique mix of styles, with special emphasis on orchestral colour, rhythmic drive and variation. They include references to Spanish music, from Gregorian Chant and Luis de Milán to Falla, combined with Latin-American sounds and rhythms (the Symphonic Dances conjure up vistas of Mexican coasts and Venezuelan plains), and, in the final movement of the Three Symphonic Versions of 1953, perhaps Orbón’s best known work, to a Congolese rhythmic ostinato.
By Guy Rickards
Julián Orbón (1925-1991)
Three Symphonic Versions • Symphonic Dances • Concerto Grosso
Julián Orbón was born in Avilés in the northern Spanish region of Asturias, on 7 August 1925, and he spent most of his childhood in that region, with the exception of a year’s visit to Cuba. His mother died when he was young and in 1940 he and his father, the pianist and composer Benjamín Orbón, left Spain permanently for Cuba. There he studied with the composer José Ardevol with whom in 1942 he co-founded the Musical Renewal group, an association of young composers promoting Cuban musical nationalism, although he would later distance himself from them. Of greater importance in terms of his musical thinking was his involvement with the writers and artists associated with the Orígenes (Origins) magazine, founded in 1944, whose editors advocated originality and universality, and the convergence of American, Spanish and European artistic ideas — and in which Orbón published articles on Falla, Tristan, and various aspects of musical style and theory. In 1945 he wrote his Symphony in C and that same year was awarded a grant to study at the Berkshire (Tanglewood) Music Center with Copland, whose influence is evident in the works Orbón composed during the 1950s. Before his thirtieth birthday then, Orbón had established a solid reputation for himself in Cuba, writing symphonic and chamber music as well as works for piano and guitar.
In 1954 his Tres versiones sinfónicas won the Juan de Landaeta Prize at the International Festival of Caracas, thereby confirming his status as one of the most representative of Spanish American composers. Two years later he wrote the Himnus ad galli cantum, and in 1958 he received a grant from the Koussevitzky Foundation to compose the Concerto grosso.
Orbón was involved, in the cultural arena, in the shaping of the Cuban Revolution. His ethical and religious beliefs, however, soon brought him into conflict with the direction taken by the Castro régime. Disillusioned, he chose exile, in 1960 accepting an invitation from the Mexican government to teach at the National Conservatory.
As he grew older and his life circumstances changed, Orbón became more reflective and introspective. Once in exile he searched for his musical roots by delving into the traditions and originality of Spanish-American music. Although he finally settled in New York in late 1963, he retained his Spanish nationality, considering himself Asturian, Spanish and Cuban, and was thrilled, therefore, to be invited to visit Madrid in 1967 for the Iberian-American Festival of Music. He made his final trip to Asturias in 1986 and his memories and nostalgia inspired one of his final works: Libro de cantares. He died in Miami on 21 May 1991.
There are several stylistic constants in Orbón’s music which colour the greater part of his production. These include the use of variation, which he considered central to the Hispanic musical spirit, references to Spanish music, from the medieval to Falla, the presence of folk music, especially Latin-American rhythms, a sensibility for transparent timbres and fondness for guitar-like pizzicati, and an assimilation of different musical currents, from the tonal to the atonal, all interconnected and reflected through his own personal prism.
Despite the presence of such constants, Orbón’s production was by no means static. Changes in his circumstances and the broadening of his musical education are reflected in his music, which gradually became more internalised. Three distinct stylistic phases can be distinguished. The first covers the pre-1950 works, whose music is optimistic, tonal, luminous, full of open spaces, its roots lying in the Spanish tonadilleros, Falla and Cuban music. Of overwhelming importance in the second phase is Orbón’s time at Tanglewood, the specific influence of Copland, his contact with other American musicians, and his assimilation of contemporary European music. The tonality of the previous period is now blended with modal, even atonal harmonizations, while the use of rhythmic ostinati, uneven metres and polyrhythms gives strength and depth to the hybrid nature of Orbón’s music. The third phase, finally, is characterized by introspection and the grief of the exile.
The three works on this CD belong to the second period. Tres versiones sinfónicas was first performed in Caracas, in 1954, by the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra conducted by Juan José Castro. The first movement, Pavana, with its Coplandian orchestration, features two themes. The first of these appears in the opening bars of the work, and takes its inspiration from a pavane by the sixteenth-century Spanish composer Luis de Milán. The second is heard on the cello and introduces us to the rhythmic and insistent Cuban sound. The central movement, Conductos, whose theme is varied melodically throughout the movement, is a contemplative evocation of medieval music, inspired by the French medieval composer Pérotin, leader of the Notre Dame school. Xylophone is based on a Congolese rhythmic ostinato, to which are added orchestral textures and different rhythmic bases which infinitely transform and embellish the African folk motifs.
The Danzas sinfónicas were first performed in 1957 in Florida by the Miami University Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Heitor Villa-Lobos. These brilliant and masterful orchestrations mark the increasingly Latin American character of Orbón’s music. The first dance, Obertura, constructed on the initial insistent rhythmic and melodic cell, demonstrates the composer’s use of repetition. The Gregoriana is a daring Allegro in which a plainsong melody, sketched out in the opening bars by the strings, becomes part of a dance of uneven metre. The Declamatoria is a slow dance, full of hints of pre-Colombian modality, while the Danza final, with its unmistakably Venezuelan feel, crystallizes the essential aspects of what Orbón called “the American musical imagination”: irregular time signatures, a reminder of the courtly dances of eighteenth-century Spain which give their rhythm to guajiras and the sounds of the Mexican coasts and the Venezuelan plains, and bass ostinati creating a kind of chaconne above which variations freely develop.
The Concerto grosso was written for string quartet and orchestra and was first performed in New York by the Orchestra of America in 1961, conducted by Richard Korn. It is the musical expression of an older man who has come to the realisation that his world of Caribbean clarity is disappearing and who is taking refuge in his own personal emotional universe, and as such can be seen as a transitional work, leading towards his final creative phase. The first movement, Moderato, opens in transparency with a guajira-like motif on the orchestral strings which is then taken up by the solo quartet. The development is complex but cohesive, Romantic echoes, motivic variations and anticipations of the other movements interlacing with one another. The Lento is one of Orbón’s most beautiful and dramatic compositions. Its reflective nature with religious references implicit in the modal music tautens uneasily every time the solo quartet enters. This tension culminates in a central processional march of archaic flavour, with touches of both the medieval and Falla at his most intense. The last notes of the slow movement herald the final Allegro, a movement of rhythmic subtlety and tonal balance, with an open and varied harmony in which there are occasional glimpses of atonality. As the movement develops, brief melodic and rhythmic motifs look back to the previous two movements, like a reinvention of memory, now ultimately refined through the filter of time.
English Version: Susannah Howe
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ORBON: Symphonic Dances