Spanish Treasure

DOWNEY - There are some pieces of music that will stop you in the middle of whatever you're doing. The adagio section of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez is one of them. Tender, meditative, lyrical, grave, it's one of the most penetrating musical passages ever written in which arresting beauty delivers us beyond the piercing ache of loss and mortality. The whole world has heard it; it's the most performed instrumental concerto ever written.The 'Concierto' will be one of the pieces featured in the Downey Symphony Orchestra's Spanish-flavored program, "Fiesta," which plays the Downey Theater on Saturday, October 22nd, and has every promise of being a memorable night. "Fiesta" will feature a world premiere written specifically for the Downey Symphony, and it will introduce the audience to a phenomenally gifted young guitarist who's on the verge of a major international career. For those who don't know anything about the Downey Symphony Orchestra, which, absurdly, consists of too many people, the "Fiesta" concert will reveal to newcomers the same level of musicianship you hear from the Los Angeles Opera, the Pasadena Symphony, the Long Beach Symphony, and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony. That's because all these outfits consist of many of the same players. Most of them do studio work to pay the rent. The rest, including their Downey performances, they do for love. Sharon Lavery is resident conductor for USC's Thornton Symphony and Chamber Orchestra, and the Thornton Wind Ensemble. As Music Director for the Downey Symphony, she's noticed the unmistakable shift in the Downey demographic from Anglo to Latino, and thinks the Symphony needs to get in on the change. "I'm trying to welcome and celebrate the Latin-American community in Downey," she says. "Some of the pieces we're doing are familiar. All of them are audience friendly." One of the selections Lavery made for the first part is a program piece by award-winning Spanish composer Oscar Navarro, based on the legend of Noah's Ark and called "El Arca de Noe." Navarro is a distinguished Spanish clarinetist and composer (his "Creation" premiered with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in March) who studied film composition at USC. "Noah's Ark' grabbed me the moment I heard it," Lavery says. "Audiences of all cultures will take to it. It's very tonal, beautiful. I'm trying to find a way to project stories of the Ark on a screen while the piece plays." In gratitude to Lavery and the Downey Symphony, Navarro has written a four-minute original composition called "The Downey Overture," which will premiere with next Saturday's program and become part of the DSO's permanent repertoire. The last selection before intermission will be "Danzon Number 2," by one of Mexico's most important composers, Arturo Marquez. The danzon, as Lavery explains it, is the Latin-American equivalent of the European waltz, appealing to the ear and a natural desire to move to the music. The Concierto de Aranjuez is a story in itself, both in its history and its connection to this concert. Written in 1939 as a tribute to the Palacio Real de Aranjuez gardens, built by Phillip II of Spain, Rodrigo, who died in 1999, describes it as an attempt to capture the garden's "…fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds, and the gushing of fountains." Legend has it that that the middle section reflects the heartache Rodrigo and his wife suffered at the miscarriage of their first child. No other piece of music has captured the pathos of mourning and the loving resolve to pick up the pieces quite so well. "It touches the deep center of our soul," says classical guitarist William Kanengiser, an Associate Professor in USC's guitar department. "It was written as his prayer to the dead. It's a universal expression of grief--tragic, noble, scintillating, and essentially Spanish." Kanengiser has had a scintillating career of his own as a soloist, but is just as well, perhaps even better-known, as one of the co-founders of the Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. It was Kanengiser whom Lavery first approached to do the Downey concert, but a scheduling conflict-the LAGQ will play Kansas City on the 22nd-made it impossible, so he recommended his long-time student Tim Callobre with this astonishing admission: "He'll play it better than I could anyway." The world of classical guitar is small, competitive, gossipy, and laced with envy. This is an almost unheard-of endorsement from one top-flight guitarist to another. "After Bill's recommendation," says Lavery, "I heard Tim play at an Honors Convocation at USC. I just said 'Yup.'" Pasadena-born Callobre has a resume as long as your arm. He's made several appearances on NPR's nationally broadcast program, "From the Top," first appearing at the age of nine. He's either won or finished as runner-up in numerous international guitar competitions, including the Christopher Parkening International Young Guitarist Competition and the North American String Teachers Association Competition. He's performed with a number of orchestras nationwide. He's played the White House. If you call him up on YouTube, not only do you get a sample of his guitar play, you see him perform Rachmaninoff etudes on the piano. He's won a hefty round of awards for that instrument too. Then there's his career as a composer, whose work was performed at Disney Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. More prestigious awards for that pursuit as well. In fact, for the first time in its history, the entire music faculty at USC voted to give Callobre a full scholarship to cover each discipline, guitar, piano and composition And get this: He's only 18 years old. If you just read the resume and hadn't seen him, you could wonder whether this kid really exists, or if some mad genius concocted him alone in a studio on a computer, the way Al Pacino fabricated that willowy plasticene megastar in the movie "Simone." But there is a real Tim Callobre, of course, and if you're expecting someone with wild hair and an odd look, you'd walk right by him. It doesn't take more than a few moments of conversation to see that he has a quality that far transcends teen goofiness and angst, particularly in his air of quiet self-possession. He's all of a slender piece, nothing superfluous, an economic physical unit. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, he's low-key, comfortable in his skin, unobtrusively smart. Dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a dark pullover, Callobre sat casually in a leather easy chair in USC's Doheny Library to take a variety of questions. The topic came up on the ubiquity of commercial music in everyday life, and how it's become the equivalent of a sonic IV drip, to where you can't even hear a straight-up TV interview or narrative without a backbeat. "I think about this a lot," he said. "In Beethoven's time, if you wanted to hear music you had to go out and look for it. Now it comes to you. It's too much. Even I have to turn off my iPod sometimes." He added perspective by saying, "It may seem boring or trite to some, but Bach and Beethoven founded what music is today. If you don't know what they did, and the harmonic language they created, you don't know what Britney Spears is doing. Almost every element of baroque and classical music has evolved to what we're hearing now." Callobre's parents are both lawyers. He has an older sister at Duke. He began playing piano at six and the guitar at seven, and started composing roughly at the same time. One of his proudest accomplishments was being chosen by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, along with three other gifted high school kids, to write a string quartet, a wind quartet, and the four-minute orchestral piece played live at Disney Hall. "It was one of those moments that gave me a chill just to hear the music performed. I admire Stravinsky and Debussy and try write in the late Romantic, early Twentieth Century tradition, where music can be complex and atonal without being meaningless. I compose because it's not enough for me to reiterate what other people have done. That concert was a defining moment for me." The competitive pressures and tensions are enormous for anyone at his career stage, but he stays relaxed. He doesn't practice for long periods. Some days he doesn't practice at all. "I've always been a regular kid. My mother made me practice a certain way, but I realized it was up to me to take responsibility for myself. You can't put that on anyone else. It's all up to you. Practice is such a strange type of work. You can become ingrained, and lose spontaneity and freshness. You can have a good practice and play a bad concert. You can have a bad practice and play a good one. I like Bill's approach. Technique is important, but not as important as the freedom to let go in the spirit of the music." For him, the Concierto de Aranjuez falls right into that philosophical outlook. "It's so free of formula, free of the pattern of movement and exposition you hear in Mozart, who can be a predictable bore. It doesn't feel like a composition at all, just a pure expression. Music has to have life before it can mean anything." The "Fiesta" concert will end with Ravel's "Bolero," which was first conceived as a fandango but gained immortality as the world's longest musical climax. The Downey Symphony has been a local treasure hidden in plain sight for too long. Here's hoping that climactic ending, along with everything that preceded it, leads to a rich rediscovery.

********** Published: October 13, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 26