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Curiosity Compels the Composer

Aurelio de la Vega has created works as eclectic as his career, as a birthday tribute shows.

April 22, 2001|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a regular contributor to Calendar

Summarizing the work of a composer as vigorously curious as Aurelio de la Vega is not easy. Serialism and pantonality, Cuban dance rhythms and chance operations, graphic notation and electronic tape, all have interested De la Vega, and have come together in a powerful and idiosyncratic musical personality.

Somewhat to the composer's surprise, however, his collected music for solo piano seems satisfyingly to sum up his evolution, particularly regarding harmonic language and general stylistic stance. That body of music-10 works from 1944 to 1987-will be played by Martha Marchena this afternoon at Cal State Northridge, where De la Vega was on the faculty for 34 years.

"I had never heard these pieces all played together," De la Vega says, before Marchena played the same program three weeks ago at the University of Miami. "I am not easy to please and I hear my music very objectively in performance, but this was very satisfactory. The impact was profound-kind of a canvas of 50 years of music. She really takes it seriously, and the results were beyond my imagination."

Marchena, a Cuban American pianist who has already recorded two discs of Latin American music, takes the program to the Smithsonian in June, then on to three more venues this year before recording the collection in December. There are also performances in Chicago and Cleveland lined up for 2002.

The project came about to honor the composer's 75th birthday. De la Vega was born in Cuba in 1925, and studied law and diplomacy at his father's insistence. But he always intended a life in music and wrote three preludes for piano when he was 19. Even in these three pieces, rapid growth of imagination can be heard-the first is forthright and Romantic in impulse; the third is a set of atonal variations on an initial musical cell.

In 1947, De la Vega became the cultural attache for the Cuban consulate in Los Angeles, and he studied here with emigre composer Ernst Toch for several years. From this period comes the Rondo in E-flat, which introduces complex counterpoint into De la Vega's musical arsenal.

He returned to Cuba in 1949 and busied himself with music, becoming chairman of the music department of the University of Oriente in Santiago de Cuba and music critic for the Havana journal Alerta. In the 1950s come four piano pieces: "Epigrama," 'Danza Lenta" and a Toccata and a Minuet.

In 1959, after Castro's takeover of the Cuban government, De la Vega emigrated to Los Angeles. That autumn, he started his tenure at Northridge, as director of its electronic music studio. He was a mainstay of the Northridge music department until his retirement in 1993, garnering a raft of international honors, including the Kennedy Center's annual composition grant, the Friedheim Award, which he received twice.

De la Vega thinks he would have emigrated even without the political change, because there were few if any instrumentalists in Cuba then who could or would play the most advanced music. "Coming here was a blessing in many ways," he says. "Just the technical aspect of writing for instrumentalists who can play anything is very important. If something does not work, you know it is your fault, not the interpreters." During his Northridge tenure, he composed just two works for solo piano, but both are blockbusters. "Antinomies," written in 1967 and premiered by Richard Grayson, assembles all manner of opposing and contrasting ideas and sounds, including serialism, spatial notation and extended instrumental techniques inside the piano.

"Homenagem" was commissioned by the Brazilian pianist Jose Eduardo Martins to celebrate the centennial of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos in 1987. Although De la Vega has always opposed overt nationalism of the simplistic sort, this piece is one of his most explicitly Cuban in its dancing rhythms.

"I find nationalism very dangerous," De la Vega says. "First, it is aesthetically limiting, and second, it can be used politically, as a sort of flag-waving. The ultimate thing is to invent a complete sound or system that would be your trademark. Beethoven did not use folk music to be German-he is German music.

"The aspiration that I always had for my music was that it would stand by itself, instead of using local materials to create a profile. 'Homenagem' is like a summary of my current music-no more vogues, no more isms, no angst. It is music you write when you are very sure of your language."

De la Vega still lives in a comfortable, art-filled home a few blocks from the Northridge campus where he spent so many years-'I miss the students, but not the institution." Paintings cover every wall, and sculpture great and small lurks on every surface. "Art is my vengeance against idiocy," he says.

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