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New World Vision Is Key to Cuarteto

The ensemble has evolved since its founding. Now it's out to put a fresh spin on an Old World art.

October 22, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The soul of a string quartet is seldom to be found in its name, which traditionally is simply that of the first violinist or the city of origin. That is still the unimaginative case more often than not, but sometimes even a seemingly generic name can carry a heavy freight of connotation.

Take the Cuarteto Latinoamericano; no translation, please. The name immediately summons up an alternative cultural embrace and a clear sense of identity--imagine in contrast how nondescript and redundant the European String Quartet would be.

But "Cuarteto Latinoamericano" identifies the players and the distinctively New World perspective on an Old World art of an internationally acclaimed ensemble, now 18 years old and in residence next week in Los Angeles with the Da Camera Society of Mount St. Mary's College.

Although the name has been there since the group was founded in 1982, the sense of mission and identity has not. Indeed, the quartet's earliest aspirations were thoroughly traditional, as was its coaching for five summers in Cologne, Germany, under the legendary Amadeus Quartet.

"It wasn't the original intention, to focus on Latin American music," says first violinist Saul Bitran, speaking by phone from his home in Florida. "Our first repertoire was traditional. It was only later on that we started finding out how much [Latin American] repertoire there was.

"We learned so many things from the Amadeus Quartet. The basics of quartet playing, intonation and style, and the basic repertoire, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. We think that without knowing that repertoire you really cannot play contemporary music. Every quartet should know the basics."

Bitran and his older brothers, second violinist Aron and cellist Alvaro, certainly learned the basics thoroughly. All three started playing their instruments when they were around 6 or 7 years old, under the tutelage of their father, an economist and violist. The Bitran family had moved to Mexico following a coup in their native Chile--where Aron and Alvaro were born--and then moved again to Brazil, before returning to Mexico in 1974.

This peripatetic childhood has given the quartet solid pan-Latino credentials, and indeed, Bitran says, the group has worked intensively in Venezuela, Colombia and Chile. Each country considers the Cuarteto Latinoamericano its own quartet, he says, and ambassadors of its own music.

In their early teens, the boys performed with their father for a while as the Bitran Quartet. Varying educational and professional paths took the brothers different ways for a time, but in 1982, Aron and Alvaro teamed up with violist Javier Montiel and, as first violinist, National Conservatory professor Jorge Risi.

"They were playing together in the Mexico Symphony Orchestra and decided to try a quartet after hours. They were happy with the results and able to quit the symphony," says Bitran. "I joined in 1986, when Risi went home to Uruguay."

Saul Bitran joined the quartet after studies in Israel; his brothers had earlier studied in the U.S. at Indiana University. They know firsthand just how difficult it can be to obtain the kind of training required for a professional career, and they have made teaching a cornerstone of their own work. The Cuarteto Latinoamericano has a long-standing residency at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and now is doing a similar program at the National Conservatory in Mexico City.

All of which makes the Cuarteto Latinoamericano well-prepared for the intense agenda the Da Camera Society has for them here. It begins Nov. 1 with programs at two elementary schools during the day, followed by "City of the Angels--Multicultural From the Start," a panel discussion and performance open to the public at the Brentwood campus of Mount St. Mary's College. Slated for performance are "Yiddishbuch" by Osvaldo Golijov (a Latino Jew like the Bitrans), "Spanish Garland" by Jose Evangelista (a Spanish composer who founded a Balinese gamelan in Canada), and "Wapango" by Cuban jazzman Paquito D'Rivera.

"We love the idea," Bitran reports. "It is not always successful, but we always try and take our music into the community. We can certainly give an overview of the quartet in Latin America. There is not much knowledge about what is happening there outside the folkloric area. The culture is so vibrant and we want to change perceptions about it. Everybody knows about exporting soccer, samba and mariachis."

On Nov. 2 come programs at another elementary school and at Central Juvenile Hall. Schoolchildren will also be visiting public performances at two Metro Red Line stations: Universal City station at 11:30 a.m. and the Hollywood/Vine station at 12:30 p.m. There the quartet will play two pieces written for them by Mexican composer Javier Alvarez, "Metro Taxquena" and "Metro Chabacano." These pieces were named after stations of the Mexico City subway and were premiered at those stations for the installation of large kinetic sculptures by Marco Liminez.

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