Americana – Live Concert – Esequiel Meza – piano – CC5363


“An attractive recital of mostly little known, lively Spanish American music brilliantly played and well recorded”


The Spanish influence on what was later to become “American” music has its roots much further in the nation`s past than the era of the founding fathers. In fact, they can be traced back to the 15th century with the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans and their introduction of the guitar and guiro but also of the language, with its Arab roots, which were a defining force in the creation of song and from which its speech patterns and inherent syntactical rhythms defined Latin dance and connected the somewhat primitive musical styles of the indigenous folk to the imported ones of the Europeans.

If we draw a time line on the introduction of Spanish musical influence into the Americas, the seminal date would be 1540. In that year a Franciscan priest named Juan de Padilla crossed over from Mexico into the present USA, what is now called New Mexico, and began teaching the Catholic liturgy and its plainsong to the Zunis and Moqui tribes. Padilla was a part of the invasion led by Francisco de Coronado. His successes with the indios of the time inspired other missionaries to began teaching liturgy and plainsong in other Spanish conquered regions. For example, in 1559, Pedro Martin de Feria began doing so in Florida in that year with similar music education according to Spanish tradition having been established as early as 1565 in St. Augustine Florida. The more popular forms of Spanish music coupled the known Spanish styles and the Andalusia/Moorish traditions of Flamenco with the music of the African slaves and of the free blacks and formed the basis of what would later become African American music.

The predominant culture in the Americas for the first few centuries of conquest was a Spanish/Portuguese one. Especially from the Spanish side, the predominance of early discoverers and conquerors from the southern regions of Spain, most notably Andalucía, cemented flamenco rhythms into the developing musical mosaic. However, these origins must not be viewed as pure Spanish but as a mixture of Moorish, Rumanian and Asian influences which congealed to create the present Flamenco in Seville with its sensuous coplas and passionate dance rhythms. This is the Spanish music, tempered by other influences from the East and from native tribes, which defined the influences of Spain on the developing North and South American colonies and, later, on the composers who would create those regions` concert music.

It is fitting to begin such a programme with a composer such as Benjamin Lees for he clearly represents this cross-pollination of styles. He was of Russian-Jewish decent, born in Manchuria and settled as a child in California. It must have been at this time that the oriental sounds of his homeland began to mingle with the dominant Hispanic traditions found in the music in California and reflected in the liturgical music he would have heard in the Synagogue as a youth. It must have been a glorious mixture of Russian-Jewish influences and Hispanic popular music not to speak of what may have been musical influences brought into the home by the traditions of his parents.

Not too many years earlier, in Mexico, Manuel Maria Ponce Cuéllar was born in the village of Fresnillo in Zacatecas. Shortly thereafter, the family relocated to the largest city in Aguascalientes where he received instruction as a composer. It was at this time, in the years before the 1st World War, that Mexican music and, in general South and Central American music and art were predominately influenced by European classics and by American jazz. Ponce continued his studies in Bologna and in Berlin in the years from 1904 to 1908 and, later in St. Louis, in the USA before relocating to La Habana in 1915 and to Paris in 1925. In France, among Ponce`s most trusted colleagues, was the composer Paul Dukas and strains of his impressionism are to be found in the evocativeness of Ponce`s music. After 1933, Ponce returned to his native Mexico where he led the Conservatorio Nacional de Mexico and edited the journal, Cultura Musical until his death in 1948.

While, in Mexico, Ponce was producing a romantic and dreamy Mexican art music, his Argentinian colleague, Alberto Ginastera, was writing an experimental and uniquely original music based on atonality, microtonal and aleatoric or random constructs. Ginastera studied in the USA, with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, before returning to his native Argentina where he quickly made a name for himself as an iconoclast. In 1968 he emigrated to the USA and, thereafter, to Europe where he remained in Geneva until his death. Ginastera was well known in pop music circles as well as among classical academics. It was Emerson, Lake and Palmer which adapted the 4th movement of Ginastera`s 1st Piano Concerto and recorded it in their album, “Brain Salad Surgery”, of which Ginasera said: “This is the form in which I imagined my music”.

Of Brasilian origin, Heitor Villa-Lobos and his music represent what is probably the quintessence of Latin American classicism with his most popular “Bachianas brasileiras”. However, his influences touched on American cinema where he scored the film “Green Mansions” and toured from Los Angeles to New York to Paris. He died in 1959 in Rio.

Probably the core composer in this list of American and Hispanic greats is Aaron Copland. Referred to as the “Dean of American Composers” Copland assumed European and American styles in his work but was also responsible in his role as teacher for the development of a unique “modern” style, adapted from and adopted by many of his contemporaries. He copied Stravinsky`s use of serial techniques, all the time writing memorable music that came to be defined as the “American sound” and leaving behind a legacy of recordings of his music for Columbia Records, a legacy that highlights the development of American music up until his death in 1990.

It is astounding how rich the region bordering Central/South America and the present day USA have become thanks to the colourful and multiethnic cultural heritage brought into the area by the conquistadores and other Spanish and Portuguese settlers. This cross-pollination of ideas and art has created a new language for understanding one another and it is now within our power to use this common ground to escape our petty selves and find a greater commonality among peoples – all through this gift of our forefathers who built this powerful bridge spanning centuries and cultures. © 2020 Kevin Wood.

Review: I – Music Web International

This live recording of a 1997 recital from St John’s Smith Square has been a long time reaching the public. Better late than never because all the music is dispatched with great skill by American pianist Esequiel Meza. Meza, over two decades on from this London recital, seems to lead a busy life as an academic as well as a player but I confess I have not seen his name in the CD catalogues before.
It will come as no surprise that the best music by some margin is the Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo by Copland. I assume this is the composer’s own piano version, the notes do not even mention the proper title let alone the provenance of the score. The notes are rather generalised and one looks in vain for details about any of these works. This is a matter of some regret since the music of Ginastera, Ponce and Lees in particular do not get much public attention and even Heitor Villa-Lobos is less played than he deserves. This Spanish-American music is all lyrical, lively and rhythmic but too short to get one’s teeth into and one ends up wondering which piece one is listening to.
My reservations about most of the music is no reflection on the playing. Indeed I cannot imagine anyone making a much better job of Villa-Lobos and Ginastera’s short pieces. For all their brevity, they demand and get, considerable virtuosity.
The issue is aided by another excellent recording from Claudio Records but one which, unusually, has been balanced too far right for the piano to give a firm central image. I am sure this must have happened at the CD production stage because Colin Attwell does not make less than excellent master recordings. Modern audio equipment without balance controls has no solutions to offer. The presence of the audience is not noticeable until the applause at the end. Dave Billinge.