Lawrence Toppman

The greatest American composer you’ve never heard

Alberto Ginastera, who would have turned 100 this year, left a rich catalog of ballets, concertos, sonatas and vocal work.
Alberto Ginastera, who would have turned 100 this year, left a rich catalog of ballets, concertos, sonatas and vocal work.

Yes, American, though Alberto Ginastera was born in Argentina in 1916 and spent most of his life there.

He studied in the United States with Aaron Copland and became to his native land what Copland was to ours: A guy who combined elements of local music with sophisticated writing techniques.

Like Copland, who based pieces on Hispanic tunes and rhythms, Ginastera considered himself not South American but a citizen of the musical New World. And he borrowed from the Old World, too.

People from Argentina are jokingly called “Italians who speak Spanish,” because so many Italians emigrated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ginastera’s mother was one of them, and he embraced European compositional techniques, especially those of the avant-garde.

So why care about a composer unlikely to turn up hereabouts? Catrin Finch played his harp concerto with the Charlotte Symphony in 2004, and the CSO put his “Estancia” suite in a KnightSounds program last season. Otherwise, I haven’t heard of local groups performing his music in decades.

A short answer comes in the new “Ginastera: One Hundred” on Naxos Records. The album offers a one-hour tour through his styles: Tuneful romanticism in “Pampeana No. 1” for violin and piano, percussive fireworks in that harp concerto, driving rhythms in three “Danzas Argentinas” for solo piano, complex melodies and harmonies in the Guitar Sonata.

The starry soloists are violinist Gil Shaham, pianist Orli Shaham (his sister), guitarist Jason Vieaux and harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, who estimates she has played “the work that pushed the harp out of its box” 200 times. Here she joins the Oberlin Orchestra and conductor Raphael Jiménez.

If this disc doesn’t speak to you, stop here. But I think it will. The music varies from easy to difficult, and there’s substance in all four pieces. The more you listen, the more you want to listen.

I discovered Ginastera 35 years ago through Charlotte’s Gary Towlen, who played his Piano Sonata No. 1 at Spirit Square. I liked the simple, folk-style songs “Cantos del Tucumán,” enjoyed the vivid ballets “Estancia” and “Panambí,” then tackled the denser piano and harp concertos.

When I say “Argentina,” two images probably pop into your head: gauchos and the Peróns. Ginastera borrowed from one and offended the others.

James O’Leary’s helpful notes to “Ginastera One Hundred” explain how Ginastera uses something called the “gaucho chord,” whose intervals suggest guitars strummed by Argentine cowboys on the pampas. Gauchos became known in folklore as tricksters who outwitted settlers and urban folk; “Estancia,” about a city boy who learns to wrangle horses, celebrates their culture.

And the Peróns? Like Stalin in Russia and Hitler in Germany, Juan Perón wanted to eradicate art that diverged from government norms. He ousted Ginastera from a teaching job at the Liceo Militár in 1945, and the composer came north to study with Copland. He returned to Buenos Aires two years later, moved back to the U.S. in 1968, then went to Switzerland in 1970. He died in Geneva in 1983.

He never stopped thinking of himself as American, according to O’Leary. He defined that noun as “the whole continent, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.”

When an expert came to Argentina to speak about “American” music, Ginastera was disappointed to learn the lecture stopped at the Texas border. That music is “estadounidense,” he told the visitor – a word translatable as “Unitedstatesian.” Ginastera was after something broader.

Toppman: 704-358-5232