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Arts Desk

The Sounds of Brazil and Classical Music Come Together In This New Work by Orlando Haddad

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courtesy of Orlando and Patricia Haddad
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Legend of Day and Night, by Moacir Andrade

Composer Orlando Haddad, known especially for the original Brazilian jazz he performs with his musical and life partner Patricia King Haddad in their duo Minas, has a new classical work for chamber ensemble. Commissioned by Orchestra 2001, and inspired by folklore about the Amazon rainforest, Lendas Amazônicas integrates elements of both Brazilian music and the western classical canon.

*You can hear this work in its entirety at the bottom of this post. 

The sound of a berimbau, an instrument originally from Africa, now often used in Brazilian music, opens Lendas Amazônicas. "It's a one-string instrument with a gourd that the player holds against the belly," says composer Orlando Haddad. "He hits that one string and with the hand he puts a coin or piece of stone into the string. It only has two pitches, but it's very rich. You have a little basket that you hold in your hand. And when you beat, the basket shakes and makes a sound."

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Credit Santiago Urquijo/Getty Images
Berimbau

Orlando grew up in Brazil, where he studied classical music  before coming to the U.S. to attend the University of North Carolina.  There he met Patricia, with whom he founded the Brazilian jazz duo Minas. In addition to his works for Minas, he's written classical works, including two song cycles, a chamber piece and 12-tone duties for oboe and viola.

Lendas Amazônicas had its beginnings in songs for guitar that Orlando had started after experiencing the lush grandeur of the Amazon during a family trip to his home country of Brazil. The songs were unfinished, on his 'back burner' until Orchestra 2001 commissioned a new work for its program on Brazilian composers as part of Esperanza Arts Center's VOCES series.

"I thought this would be a good way to develop those pieces and reorchestrate from guitar to a chamber music group," says Orlando, who has composed Lendas Amazônicas  for flute, oboe, alto sax, tenor sax, upright bass, piano, guitar and percussion.

The five-movement piece brings to musical life seven colorful stories of the mythological world of gods and humans, love and mischief, and the vital importance of our natural resources.

In May, Orlando met with me on Zoom to talk about his approach to the work.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Does this piece draw on certain traditions in Brazilian music?

Yes, the popular music of Brazil. I use a lot of forms from Brazil - a samba, the bossa nova - and I use a baião, which is a dance form. I used a lot of instruments such as the berimbau and the cuica. The cuica has a squeaky sound, like monkeys. It's also African, but it's been developed in Brazil and it's used in samba music.

Could you give some examples of how different instruments help tell the story?

First is the story of Jaci, which is the God of the Moon, and how the Amazon river was formed. Jaci was in love with Guaraci, the god of the sun, but their union was not possible because the heat of the sun would melt the earth and the cries of the moon would flood the earth. Jaci was heartbroken, and cried day and night. The tears of Jaci created the Amazon river. So, I named that legend "Jaci's Lament" and I assigned it to the flute. I thought the flute would have a voice we would hear alone in the forest.

In the fourth movement, I used guitar to express the happiness of the character called Curupira. He's a green dwarf and his feet are backwards. He leaves tracks, but you think the tracks are going in one direction when they're going in another direction. And he whistles in people's ears, if they're not acting properly in the forest; if they're cutting down trees or mistreating animals. He misleads them and gets them lost and confused.

So in that movement, I created the theme with a guitar, but then I inverted the theme from the very end to the beginning and assign it to the oboe.

And then the last movement references J.S. Bach.

Yes, Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote the series, Bachianas Brasileiras. He used to emulate Bach, drawing from him in his own way. And other Brazilian composers have done that as well.

So I wrote this last movement about this young Indian named Naia, who was in love with the god of the moon Jaci. Naia pursues the moon, but she could never get to the moon, because the moon was so far away. Exhausted, she falls asleep. When she wakes up, she sees the moon reflected on the lake and she jumps in and tragically drowns. The God of the moon, feeling compassion, transforms her into this beautiful water lily flower, which only blooms at night.

I wrote almost like a passacaglia with the theme that keeps repeating. I tried to build tension there to express the obsession that she had with the moon. Then I wrote a fugue to express her running in the forest and falling asleep.

What are the challenges when you're working with so many different styles of music?

Well, it gives me a little more to work with, because I can draw from so many things. For example in the band Minas, I really don't bring my classical background as much, because it doesn't fit in the style, but here I felt not too constricted. I always like to start from an organic place, something that comes from within; then I manipulate the themes. I change them around, retrograde, divert them. I put them in another key and play around with them. I can't use too much dissonance in my Brazilian jazz; whereas when I write classical music, I can use a lot more dissonance in writing an atonal way.

Setting these legends to music, were you hoping for a particular message to come across? One message would be about the importance of preserving the forest; another would be about protecting these indigenous people. These stories have been passed from generation to generation for thousands of years.

*****

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Credit Nina Siniakova (pianist on the work; not pictured)
Personnel for Orchestra 2001's recording of Lendas Amazônicas, including (at right) Patricia King Haddad and Orlando Haddad

Orchestra 2001 performed the premiere of Lendas Amazônicas (recorded at World Cafe Live), as part of its program on 20th and 21st-Century Music by Brazilian composers. It streamed from Teatro Esperanza on Wednesday, June 23rd. Also on the program are Sexteto misitco by Heitor Villa-Lobos, and The Book of Spells, by Clarice Vasconcelos Assad.

Here's a video of the concert,  Conexões - Voces Winter Spring 2021, which features  Lendas Amazônicas at 25:21.