Composer Miguel Kertsman beckons the listener to join him on a journey. Undoubtedly, the three compositions Chamber Symphony No. 1 “Acorda!” (1995/6), and the earlier works Sinfonia Concertante Brasileira for Flute and Orchestra (1989), and Amazônia, Symphonic Poem (1987) not only are journeys for Kertsman, but also for the listeners as they are enveloped by the sounds, and the images the pieces evoke.
Chamber Symphony No. 1 “Acorda!” transports us to a beautiful seascape in Brazil. Acorda! means “Wake-up!” in Portuguese and in this case the music calls its audience to wake-up to the world. The gentle sounds of the seashore and the populace awakening are unmistakable. The first section of the Chamber Symphony is in fact called “Awakening,” and is followed by “The Journey.” “Awakening” calls to mind the physical reactions of the senses, including gratitude for the new day, and “The Journey” is earthly in nature recalling everyday activities – the rumble of an automobile engine, traffic noises, a siren. The sonic picture is quickly transformed by the hustle and bustle of a lively beach. In “Sun and Ocean,” the third part of the symphony, the composer is recalling his own experiences: roasted peanuts; vendors walking the beach selling everything from fruit salad and ice cream to oysters and beer; the scent of suntan lotion; beautiful sights, and a symphony of sounds including the surf, a small airplane flying above, and voices of the beachgoers.
The symphony progresses to its fourth part, “Silent Meditation, Ascension.” The two female voices we hear create a wordless multi-rhythmic flow transcending the worldly setting of the beach, and transporting the listener to that spiritual place of inner exploration and contemplation. Kertsman is encouraging the listeners to engage their own sensibilities and journey to greater self-awareness. The same music that once represented “the rumble of a car’s engine” during part II, “The Journey,” is now transfigured, note by note, into a peaceful and blissful meditation in ascending harmonic cycles. The ordinary sights and sounds of our surroundings take on a new meaning. The listener’s opportunity to consider the Chamber Symphony No. 1 and its parts: the temporal, the spiritual, all of our senses called to action, opens the composer’s appeal of waking-up to our universe – Acorda! The work is scored for a “dark orchestra” without violins or higher range wood winds: two viola sections, celli, basses, oboe, clarinet, bassoon / contrabassoon, percussion, organ, contralto and soprano.
Chamber Symphony No. 1 “Acorda!” is followed by Sinfonia Concertante Brasileira for Flute and Orchestra, composed in 1989 while 23 yearold Kertsman was living in New York and writing progressive chamber jazz pieces for his ensemble, “Amazonica Universal Orchestra.” Influenced by both Brazilian music, and a not atypical young composer’s infatuation with lush 19th century Romantic repertoire, the piece begins with a quiet solo flute cadenza followed by a rhapsodic first movement developed as an interweaving set of variations on two principal themes.
Written as a cyclical work, Sinfonia Concertante Brasileira for Flute and Orchestra is performed without pause. Thus, the second movement, Largo, in the form of a traditional Brazilian Choro (meaning “cry”), immediately transports us to an introspective, somehow sad movement written on a hot summer night in New York. Kertsman was inspired to write the movement by a song he had heard as a child from his father. The words “so he sang, my beloved father, now he sings from heaven” would make their way into the score nine years later, at which time the composer’s father had passed away. During that night, in 1989, while composing the piece friends were calling and interrupting the creative process as a party was in progress, but Kertsman could not let go of the music, composing the entire second movement that evening.
It was not until over a decade later, during a summer stay in the Austrian Alps, that Sinfonia for Flute and Orchestra was completed. The third movement, “The Dumb Donkey Called Jackass,” in Rondo form, is comical in nature. Imagine a donkey, loaded with pots and pans, refusing to budge. There they are, master and donkey at a stalemate in the Brazilian “Sertões”, or backlands.
A combination of native Brazilian instruments and artifacts, the full orchestra cum Brazilian Big Band sound, some vocal work by the orchestra’s musicians, and a soloist doubling on piccolo and shouting “hey!,” all contribute to the lively and picturesque feeling of the movement. The composer seamlessly marries the symphonic world with jazz using the orchestra to participate in the comedy of the donkey, and the following introspective recollection of the previous slow movement. “The Dumb Donkey Called Jackass,” also recalls the main musical themes from the work’s first movement bringing Sinfonia Concertante Brasileira for Flute and Orchestra full circle, ending with the same opening solo flute cadenza. One can actually hear the soloist walk away from the concert hall fading in the distance. Sinfonia Concertante Brasileira for Flute and Orchestra is scored for a full orchestra (woodwinds in two) with piano and additional percussion including assorted Brazilian instruments. Chronologically, Amazônia, Symphonic Poem is the earliest of Kertsman’s three compositions presented on this album. As the title suggests, the setting is South America, specifically the Amazon, Selva Amazônica. The seeds of inspiration for this musical tribute were planted when the 21 year-old composer was flying over the rainforest. True to its title, Amazônia is an ecological call, a warning aimed to help increase awareness about the great forest and its vital importance to humanity. The piece also depicts the landscape. As the composer says, in his own words, “the music is to evoke feelings and impressions one would have by experiencing the Amazon.”
The listener experiences the composer’s vision and the recurring theme of duality – a symmetry of sounds and the expanse of the rainforest: the colors, the sounds, and the majesty that is all around. At the same time, there is delicateness in the details. One can imagine the sounds of a butterfly’s wings or a gentle rain.
Duality is also inherent in the message conveyed by the piece. Greed threatens to destroy our fragile planet – indeed a world which could easily transform itself from fragile and perfectly in harmony, to a devastating and hostile one as a result of mankind’s own doing. No one can better express the emotion of Amazônia than the composer himself:
Flying over the great Amazon in a clear day dawning is a fascinating experience. By looking down, your eyes are granted with a marvelous sight: A smooth, grandiose green carpet of life overwhelms you. If you meditate about it for a few moments, you shall soon experience a peculiar sensation of peace and inner happiness. You are, for at least a few minutes, in harmony with nature.
The majestic forest is one of Earth’s lungs renovating and purifying our air. The mighty Amazon River and its tributaries create a dazzling network of aquatic life while irrigating the so-called “Emerald Forest.”
The wealth of life in the Amazon still puzzles scientists and makes us all wonder – there are so many societies and cultures coexisting there, making the human element another extraordinary factor. The Amazon is an entire world in itself waiting to be truly discovered. Who knows, we may yet find some of the answers to our most persistent questions in the heart of where nature fully celebrates itself.
It is not my intention to accord a fixed program to the composition. However, I would like to point out a few facts about the music and what it represents. Rather than merely rendering a musical picture of physical events and geographic locations, the music evokes feelings and impressions one would have by experiencing the Amazon. Transcending oneself into its immensity and all-enveloping horizon: The “music of overwhelming colossal areas,” the mysterious sounds of the valleys, the frenetic rhythms of its inhabitants, storms, the ecstasy and inner peace one would feel by witnessing nature’s celebration, the singing of birds, and the sounds of the great river all contribute to the impressions flowing throughout the work. The listener can compose her/his own trail of thoughts and imagery.
Man’s destructive behavior and attitude towards the Amazon create a threat not only to that environment, but also to mankind itself. Exploring new places and progress are of course important, and valid endeavors. Unfortunately, much of that is often carried out in careless, shortsighted, unsustainable ways. If our fate is to witness our planet’s continuous destruction, or an increase in mankind’s awareness and common sense – for that the conductor shall cut off the orchestra before the answer is given: Both sides are fighting and hoping for victory – the bells shall be heard … We must have hope – we cannot lose faith.
The Amazon is a true gift to mankind. Then again, not always a child, even the brightest one, knows how to make good use of a gift.
© 1987 by Miguel Kertsman
Reproduced by permission of Amazonica Music, NY
ASCAP Aurua Sounds, Ltd.
And the tolling bell which ends the piece? Is it a warning of what the future portends? Is it a plea for action? Is it a call for hope and maintaining faith? The composer asks you the listener to decide. Amazônia, Symphonic Poem is scored for a large symphony orchestra (winds in three) including an extended percussion section, piano, and organ. Adrienne Lentz