South of the Border beat |

South of the Border beat

Amazon-born percussionist Guadencia Thiago de Mello is featured in the Aspen Music Festivals Postcards From Latin America minifestival.

Asadour Santourian could have spun a globe and placed a finger on any country when he came up with this year’s minifestivals at the Aspen Music Festival and School.But there are plenty of reasons why Latin America was his top pick.

“One of the things we want to do at the festival is introduce our public to music from other parts of the world, not just the German symphonic tradition,” said Santourian, artistic director of the AMFS. “Latin America is one of the parts of the world that, at least in the 20th and into the 21st century, has been prolific and active in creating serious music, high-art music, and really enjoyable music.”Postcards from Latin America is the second of three weeklong minifestivals produced by the AMFS this summer, sandwiched between minifestivals on forbidden music and the Baroque. It begins Sunday, July 31, with seven performances featuring some 30 works from more than a dozen Latin American countries.It’s a long way from classical music’s birthplace. But as classical music spread, from continental Europe to Scandinavia, China and Latin America among other places, different cultures composed the music, adding their own traditions.In Latin America, that meant dance rhythms were often the foundation for the music, whether veiled or overt, Santourian said. This week’s minifestival will integrate Latin American music in standard repertory; Sunday’s Aspen Festival Orchestra performance includes the works of Mexican composers Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas.Other minifestival performances will demonstrate how the music can contrast or complement itself, such as Monday’s chamber music concert, which pairs composers from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.”When you have a great talent who doesn’t shy away from expressing his history and culture, it becomes a very powerful type of music,” said Sharon Isbin, a Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist and AMFS faculty member who will perform as part of this week’s minifestival. It’s the same reason Gershwin was great, she said, for his ability to capture the essence of new directions in American music. “When someone is true to their core, and has the talent and skill to communicate it, that’s the best.”

Isbin, whose repertoire stretches from Baroque to Bernstein, has been exploring Latin American music for years. “I think it’s wonderful the Aspen Festival has decided to be a leader in this direction, because some of the most exciting new music today is from Latin American cultures,” she said.Isbin will perform in a sold-out concert Saturday, Aug. 6, with composer Gaudencio Thiago de Mello on percussion and Bil Jackson on soprano saxophone. Together, Isbin and Thiago recorded “Journey to the Amazon,” a Grammy Award-nominated CD of South American music. Their local performance will echo those themes.”Thiago is a unique figure in the world of music that I play – I know of no other whose origins are from an Indian tribe in the Amazon rainforest, who settled into Western culture to be able to write about the legends of his people,” she said.

Thiago de Mello was raised in the Amazon, a descendent of the Maué tribe. He learned of music through his brother and sister, who played the violin and piano. He also listened to the sounds of the wind, rain and birds that surrounded him.He came to the United States when he was 33 to coach soccer professionally, but soon traded sports for music. Since 1966 he has lived in New York, becoming a composer, percussionist and leader of the band, Amazon.”It’s fun to play with [Thiago] because you never know what he’s going to do,” Isbin said. “He’s always improvising on hand-held percussion instruments, many he created himself – anywhere from a turtle shell to dried-out cocoons or a rain stick that evokes the sound of a waterfall or rain through the trees in the Amazon.”Isbin’s love of Latin American music goes beyond her work with Thiago, however. In June 2004 Isbin performed three guitar concertos with the New York Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall; she was the first guitarist to solo with the orchestra in 26 years. The resulting recording, released in January, was the Philharmonic’s first-ever with guitar.The concertos were by well-known Spanish and Latin American classical music composers – Joaquín Rodrigo from Spain, Hector Villa-Lobos from Brazil, and Manuel Ponce of Mexico. The concert was conducted by composer José Serebrier, who was born in Uruguay.In fact, some of classical guitar’s most prolific composers are Latin. Venezuela’s Antonio Lauro, Isbin explained, wrote music steeped in the tradition of his country, as did Agustín Barrios-Mangoré of Paraguay.

Plus, guitar is often associated with traditions of South American and European cultures, she said.”[The guitar] tells a story of the people – it’s been the stalwart accompaniment to ballads that will describe a culture’s struggles, hopes, visions, dreams, oppression and passion,” she said.The music festival’s Santourian hopes those who attend this week’s minifestival will leave with an enriched sense of Latin America and its music – a genre that’s becoming embraced around the world.Isbin has even seen concerts where the audience leapt to their feet with enthusiasm for music with Latin American origins.”Thiago and I performed at the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil, and when we played, I realized that this was the audience of his people,” she said. “It was remarkable for them to respond with such enthusiasm when we played his music.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is

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