When it comes to classical music, I would categorize myself under “uncultured swine,” as most of my exposure is from either car commercials or switching to the wrong radio station before I had a car stereo with an AUX input. I’ve always had a resistance to immersing myself in classical music because of my misconception that all orchestral pieces were written by old, dead, white Europeans. However, “Brazilians in California,” the first concert as part of the Villa-Lobos International Chamber Music Festival, changed my preconception. The concert featured cellist Lars Hoefs from Sao Paulo State University in Campinas, Brazil and renowned pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, who played some of the neoclassical standards that inspired famed Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, as well as some Villa-Lobos originals and other selections from South American composers. As an added treat, the chair of our music department, Dr. Paulo Chagas, debuted “Mobile I” from his three-part composition “Gravity and Grace,” which was commissioned for the Villa-Lobos festival.
The crowd inside the auditorium of Arts 166 was of moderate size, with around every other seat filled with adults and some college-age attendees. A few minutes before 8 p.m., Chagas provided a brief overview of the night’s events as the lights dimmed. He returned to his seat after a few moments, while Hoefs and Vanhauwaert took their places behind their instruments. From my seat in the back of the auditorium, the two men almost appeared small in front of the crowd that stretched above them, but the gentle hum of Hoefs’ cello filled the room as he brought his bow across the taut strings. The first piece was “Suite Italienne” by Igor Stravinsky, a composer that provided much inspiration to Villa-Lobos. The second song was a solo piano piece by Claude Debussy, and Hoefs explained that the song, “Images, I. Reflets dans l’eau,” was inspired by images of water. Vanhauwaert’s hands danced over the keys, creating melodies unlike any I had ever heard. I leaned back in my seat, palms over my eyes, and heard the soft splish-splash of raindrops on a pond with each delicate tap of the higher notes complemented by the rough, foreboding seas with the bass notes. The third piece was a sample of Villa-Lobos’ “New York Skyline Melody,” and Hoefs rejoined Vanhauwaert for their thoughtful rendition.
After each song, the two would stand up during the gentle applause, giving a short bow to the audience. They seemed somewhat nervous, and there was palpable energy in the air as they sat down and moved into their rendition of Chagas’ “Gravity and Grace: Mobile I,” which had never been performed for a live audience. There is an inherent difficulty with conveying the multivariate sounds of music in writing, but I found myself at a loss for coherent thought as the cello whispered and hummed while the piano sang a soft, crooning tune. The program I had been thumbing through earlier in the evening promised that “Mobile I” was “meditative,” and time itself seemed to melt away as the audience held their enraptured gaze at the two performers.
With each passing measure, their distinct mannerisms became apparent, from the way Hoefs would give a low, punctuated sigh before drawing his bow across the strings with particular panache, to the small fist Vanhauwaert would make with his right hand at the end of each flourish of playing. The piece was equal parts sound and silence, with harmonic stops appearing at random, the melodic tone of the instruments disappearing into the walls of the auditorium. There was a microcosm of absolute stillness with each stop, as the audience held in their collective breath in the seemingly endless milliseconds before the two began playing again as we all drew in a collective gulp of air. When the piece ended, the room erupted in the most thunderous applause as Chagas joined the two performers for a bow. It was time for the intermission.
Both the audience and the performers seemed much more relaxed as we filed back to our seats after the 10-minute break. The second half of the performance was designed to highlight other pieces from South American composers. As Hoefs and Vanhauwaert played, they would often give each other a knowing smile as they played another movement of a song. They knew that the audience was in the palms of their hands, and their confidence shone through. Hoefs would relax his bow with a small smile as he finished playing a measure, and Vanhauwaert would throw his hands up in a flourish after he played a particularly impressive sequence on the piano. The final song of the evening, “Fantasia,” did not disappoint, as the two seemed to use the entire range of their instruments in every possible permutation, as Villa-Lobos’ melody poured into our ears.
With the end of the final song, the room erupted into another round of thunderous applause as I snapped out of the trance in which the music had ensnared me. Chagas joined the two at the front of the room once more, and all three promised to stay after the show for a few moments to answer questions. I decided to say a few words to Chagas, and I tried to think of something clever to say about the way his composition had made me feel, and how I was truly engaged by his accomplishment. As I formulated the words of what I hoped would be an erudite sentence, he asked if I was there to write for the Highlander. “Y-yes,” I blurted out. “Your music, the piece you wrote … it was really, really good.” Damn.
However, he had a calm and approachable demeanor, and we chatted about his inspirations, some of the impressions and symbolism I had felt, and I was eventually able to sound like less of a caveman during our brief discussion. The experience had a profound effect on me, as it shattered my preconceptions of what constituted “classical music.”