Heitor Villa-Lobos was a hard man to classify during his career as a musician and composer, and the task has not gotten any easier in the 30 years since his death. Brazil's tireless innovator delighted in unusual meldings of ideas from his classical training and from his homeland's popular music. The result is too idiosyncratic to be imitated and too delightful to be overlooked.
The lineup of a Villa-Lobos concert coming Tuesday to Cal State Northridge shows the extent of the composer's playfulness. Among the scheduled works are "Bachianas Brasileiras 5," one of his nine suites that interpret Bach from a Brazilian musical tradition. The piece uses eight cellos and a soprano to surprisingly lilting effect. Singing will be Janet Momjian, a CSUN student who won last year's Metropolitan Opera Western regional competition.
Also to be performed is "Sextuor Mystique," or "Mystical Sextet," which features flute, oboe, alto saxophone, harp, guitar and celesta.
"How's that for a collection of instruments," said David Aks, director of the CSUN Symphony and one of the principal organizers of Tuesday's concert. "It's a very unusual sound.
Aks said the Villa-Lobos works will be performed as chamber pieces by a loosely knit collection of students and faculty, including Music Department Chairman Jerry Luedders, a saxophonist. About 16 performers will take part, with no more than nine appearing at a time.
"We just ignore Latin American composers in this country, which is a big mistake," Aks said. "With Villa-Lobos, some of the music is more European sounding, and a lot of it has a strong Latin flavor. It's lively, it's rhythmic and it's tuneful."
The idea for the event came from Gustavo Neiva Tavares, 28, a Brazilian who is pursuing a master's degree in music at CSUN. Tavares, a cellist like Aks, was first cello for Brazil's National Theater and studied six years in West Germany. He has done considerable research into Villa-Lobos, who wrote more than 1,300 works.
"He is the most important composer in Brazil and one of the most important on the American continent," Tavares said. "He played many instruments: cello, guitar, piano. He came from a family where music was very alive. He was very interested in music but also very independent and did not want to go into academic settings."
Instead, the composer traveled widely in Brazil, learning the popular music.
"He developed a need to become more Brazilian to be honest as a musician," Tavares said. "Of course, much of the popular music is by guitar. As a cellist, Villa-Lobos played opera and serious music, and as a guitarist he is much more acquainted with Brazilian popular music."
Tavares said the works of Villa-Lobos expose the myth of Brazil as a land of little more than sun, bananas and simple, bright music.
"He had many ideas about orchestration that were not European. Because of that, many people, like Artur Rubinstein and Aaron Copland were influenced by him. There is a very rich, complex culture behind him that allowed him to become great."
The concert will last about an hour and a half. Preceding it will be a talk by Robert Stevenson, a music professor at UCLA who has studied Latin American music extensively.
"The Chamber Music of Villa-Lobos" will be Tuesday, Dec. 12, at 8 p.m. in the Little Theatre, Speech-Drama Building, Cal State Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff St. Tickets are $5 and $2 for students and seniors. For information call 818-885-3180.