· By Nicholas Stevens

In Conversation: Isaac Karabtchevsky on Villa-Lobos Complete Symphonies

Artistic director and conductor of the Orquestra Petrobras Sinfônica, Isaac Karabtchevsky is also artistic director of the Baccarelli Institute and the Orquestra Sinfônica de Heliópolis. He was awarded the Prêmio da Música Brasileira four times (2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018) for his recordings of the complete Villa-Lobos symphonies with the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (OSESP). ArkivMusic is honored to share this interview with Karabtchevsky about his work on the music of Villa-Lobos.

Isaac Karabtchevsky grew up in a time when Villa-Lobos was at his most active, representing Brazilian art music to an international community that had been largely unaware of the composers of South America up to that point.  

ArkivMusic: Over your own lifetime, how have Villa-Lobos's fame and reputation grown and changed? 

Isaac Karabtchevsky: Villa-Lobos had a childhood full of examples from his family that exercised the same example of hausmusik on the child in European homes. From his father he learned the cello and the guitar; these two instruments would exert a marked influence on his later development as a composer. The connotation is wide, from the Bachianas Brasileiras to the Preludios for guitar, true masterpieces in the genre. The influence of Bach, always present, would lead to his entire production, as Villa-Lobos wove a direct line between Baroque counterpoint and Brazilian folklore. This aspect, in addition to others resulting from French music, especially impressionism, would never abandon him. 
 

AM: Follow-up to the above: what is your first memory of encountering Villa-Lobos's music? 

IK: Even as a young conductor, in Rio de Janeiro, I had the opportunity to dialogue with Arminda Villa-Lobos, his widow and inspiring muse. She told me about his strange way of composing, always surrounded by family members and under the high-pitched sound of radio programs (What a difference, I thought, with Haydn who, by putting on his coat, gave a mystical character to the creative impulse!). As we talked, it was assumed that some of the notes on the scores could not be reproduced clearly, making the copying process difficult. This information would, decades later, play a decisive role in the process of revising the symphonies. 
 

AM: Like Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos continued to write symphonies throughout his career and well into the later 20th century, after many composers had left the genre behind. In your opinion, what sets this composer's cycle of 12 Symphonies apart? 

 Villla-Lobos

IK: The sonata form, the basis on which the construction of the symphony is based, consists of the harmonic standardization of a thematic material; this result, called exposition, is replaced and modified to create the development, the moment where the composer expands the range of options that open up in front of him. In summary, the sonata form, dictated by a Cartesian precept, would shape generations of creators at different times and styles. I am convinced that, even subject to modifications, the sonata form will never cease to be reference in the creative spectrum. 

AM: Most of Villa-Lobos's symphonies have subtitles that suggest narratives or imagery. With pieces like Symphony no. 6 ("On the Outline of the Mountains of Brasil") or Symphony no. 10 ("Amerindia"), do you develop your own ideas about the literary ideas or settings the composer was referencing? Do you talk with your musicians about this aspect? 

IK: These subheadings are important! In works such as Sinfonia 6, describing the mountains of Brazil, the melodies obey parameters of tension and distention, following the graphic representation of sinuous movements, as in the New York Skyline. In contrast, Symphonies 3, (A Guerra), and 4, (Vitória), have a programmatic vision. Symphony 10, (Ameríndia), is an oratorio with a restricted emphasis on the sonata form. 

 Isaac Karabtchevsky is a Brazilian conductor of Russian-Jewish origin.

AM: Many concert-goers hear Villa-Lobos's chamber music more often than his symphonic works. Why do you think that is, and what would you like our readers to know about the appeal of his larger-scale compositions? 

IK: Villa-Lobos was a sponge, he absorbed and resized his shapes, all of them, as a background, linked to a purpose: emotion! 

AM: Villa-Lobos remains one of the best-known composers of not just Brazil, but also of South America and the Lusophone world. Who are some other composers of these regions and communities that you would consider his peers? 

IK: I could list some of the composers that permeate the music scene in Latin America - here in Brazil: Claudio Santoro, Guerra-Peixe, Edino Krieger, Camargo Guarnieri, João Guilherme Ripper, Marlos Nobre, Ernani Aguiar, among many others. In Argentina: Mauricio Kagel, Astor Piazzolla, Alberto Ginastera. In Mexico: Carlos Cháves, Silvestre Revueltas, just to list some of them. 

AM: The São Paulo Symphony sounds magnificent on these recordings, from the mysterious and impressionistic sound of Villa-Lobos in the 2010s to the bold, energetic thrust of the later works. Did you enjoy going on this musical journey with a single set of musicians? 

IK: The OSESP is an orchestra made up of excellent musicians, shaped by criteria of excellence. These are obvious in those moments that require instrumental technique, stylistic awareness and refined sensitivity. The album we released by Naxos was a paradigm, it was a joy extended for 7 years! 

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This wonderful Naxos 6-CD box set of the complete Villa-Lobos symphonies is on sale as part of our Music of the Americas campaign to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Get it before the discount ends on 4 October 2022.