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La Catrina Quartet
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This project is funded by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, through the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

+ About the Performance
This program was recorded 05/12/2011 at Symphony Space.

During their only New York appearance, La Catrina Quartet offers a program featuring a preview performance of a new work by Puerto Rico's Roberto Sierra (commissioned by Symphony Space), as well as works by Manuel Ponce, Ginastera, Piazzolla, and Mexico's foremost contemporary composers, Javier Alvarez and Joaquín Gutierrez-Heras.

"La Catrina Quartet brings a distinctly new salsa flavor to the genre, spotlighting rhythmic dance-dominated music we're more used to hearing from mariachi or the Ballet Folklorico. The audience might well have lept up and begun whipping through heel-flashing zapateados in the aisles."




Javier Álvarez (1956)

Metro Chabacano


Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992)

Tango Ballet


Roberto Sierra (1953)

Cuarteto para cuerdas No. 2 (World Premiere, commissioned by Symphony Space)
I. Salseado
II. Lento con gran expresión
III. Vivo
IV. Rápido


Joaquin Gutiérrez-Héras (1929)

Cuarteto No. 1


Manuel Ponce (1882-1948)

Intermezzo in E minor


Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)

String Quartet No. 1, op. 20
I. Allegro violento ed agitato
II. Vivacissimo
III. Calmo e poetico
IV. Allegramente rustico

+ About the Artists

About the Artists

Praised by Yo-Yo Ma as “wonderful ambassadors for music,” the Mexican-American La Catrina String Quartet was founded in 2001 and takes its name from a popular Mexican folk icon.

One of the most unique chamber ensembles on tour today, their blend of Latin-American and standard repertoire has proven enormously attractive to diverse audiences, catering to the more traditional concertgoers while stimulating the next generation of listeners. Their infectious personalities infuse their playing, creating truly compelling performances. The La Catrina Quartet has a triple mission: to promote Mexican and Latin-American art music worldwide, to work closely with composers in order to promote the performance of new music, and to perform the masterworks of the string quartet repertoire.

Recent concert engagements have taken the La Catrina Quartet to New York City (Merkin Hall, where they made their début in 2010), Washington DC, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, La Jolla, and many other cities. In 2007, the quartet was featured as one of the “next generation of classical stars” in a showcase performance at Carnegie Hall for hundreds of concert promoters from the around the world, having been selected through the highly competitive “Young Performers Career Advancement” program.

The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Mexico is known more for its mariachis than its string quartets, but the La Catrina Quartet [is helping] change some assumptions . . . youthful energy and mature artistry.”

The La Catrina Quartet has received many important awards, including the Bascom Little Fund Grant, the North Carolina Arts Council cARTwheels 2009 and 2010 touring program, and Western Michigan University’s All University Research and Creative Scholar Award. They have premiered works by composers Thomas Janson and John Ferrito at the Kent Blossom Music Festival, and by Zae Munn at the Chicago College of Performing Arts.

The Faculty Quartet-in-Residence at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, the La Catrina Quartet has also held residencies with the Western Piedmont Symphony in North Carolina, the Chamber Music Festival of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (where they collaborated with the Brentano and Miami Quartets), and the Kent Blossom Music Festival, among others.


Daniel Vega-Albela, violin
Blake Espy, violin
Jorge Martínez, viola
César Martínez-Bourguet, cello

About the Composers

For more than three decades the works of American composer Roberto Sierra have been part of the repertoire of many of the leading orchestras, ensembles and festivals in the USA and Europe. At the inaugural concert of the 2002 world renowned Proms in London, his Fandangos was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert that was broadcast by both the BBC Radio and Television throughout the UK and Europe. International ensembles that have performed his works include the orchestras of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, New Mexico, Houston, Minnesota, Dallas, Detroit, San Antonio, and Phoenix, as well as by the American Composers Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich, the Spanish orchestras of Madrid, Galicia, Castilla y León, and Barcelona.

In 2003 he was awarded the Academy Award in Music by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The award states: “Roberto Sierra writes brilliant music, mixing fresh and personal melodic lines with sparkling harmonies and striking rhythms. . .” His Sinfonía No. 1, a work commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, won the 2004 Kenneth Davenport Competition for Orchestral Works. In 2007 the Serge and Olga Koussevitzky International Recording Award (KIRA) was awarded to Albany Records for the recording of his composition Sinfonía No. 3 “La Salsa.” Roberto Sierra has served as Composer-In-Residence with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, and New Mexico Symphony. In 2010 he was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Roberto Sierra was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, and studied composition both in Puerto Rico and Europe, where one his teachers was György Ligeti at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg, Germany. The works of Roberto Sierra are published principally by Subito Music Publishing (ASCAP).

Of all of the Mexican composers currently active today, Javier Álvarez has been the most widely recognized internationally. Most of this prolific composer’s works are characterized by a harmonious balance between his understanding of the medium for which he writes and a profound technical mastery of his musical language. In John Adams’ words, “the music of Javier Álvarez reveals popular culture influences that go beyond our boundaries of time and space.” Álvarez lives in Mérida, México, and is director of the music department of the Escuela Superior de Artes de Yucatán. From 1982 until 2005 he lived in London, where he was a professor at the Royal College of Music and at the Guildhall School of Music, teaching composition and technology. He has composed large-scale works such as Mambo, an opera which combines the use of singers, instrumentalists, and computers, for the Nexus Opera in London.

Born in Argentina in 1921, Ástor Piazzolla spent much of his first 25 years in New York City, and also lived and studied in Paris. Besides being a noted composer, he was also a virtuoso performer on the bandoneón, a sought-after orchestra leader, chamber musician, and arranger. Over the span of his career he wrote more than 1000 works ranging from orchestral suites to an electric octet. He studied with famous musicians including Bartók, Boulanger, Ginastera, and Stravinsky, and was also heavily influenced by jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. This interest in such wide variety of music is often cited as the reason for his distinctive style; he is particularly known for his tangos, which blend the dance form and the formal concert piece.

The prolific and prize-winning Mexican composer Joaquín Gutiérrez-Héras studied music on his own while a young architecture student at the National University of Mexico. In 1949, he won a prize for his composition Divertimento for piano and orchestra. Soon after, he enrolled at the National Conservatory (Mexico). He won a scholarship from the French Institute of Latin America for a year at the Paris Conservatory, where he studied with Olivier Messiaen. After returning to Mexico, Gutiérrez-Héras and other young composers founded the group Nueva Musica de Mexico in 1957. In 1960 he was awarded a scholarship by the Rockefeller Foundation to study at the Juilliard School, where he received a Diploma in composition. He has worked for the National University of Mexico, and was director of its broadcasting station. He is a member of the Academy of the Arts of Mexico, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the National University of Mexico.

Manuel Ponce was a Mexican composer active in the 20th century. His work as a composer, music educator, and scholar of Mexican music connected the concert scene with the usually forgotten tradition of popular song and Mexican folklore. Many of his compositions are strongly influenced by the harmonies and form of traditional songs. Born in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Ponce moved to the city of Aguascalientes and lived there until he was 15. Famous for being a “musical prodigy,” according to his biographers, he was barely four years of age when after having listening to the piano lessons received by his sister, he sat down at the instrument and performed the piece that he had heard. After years abroad in Italy and Germany, Ponce returned to Mexico to teach piano and music history at the National Conservatory of Music. In 1912, he gave a memorable concert of Mexican popular music in Mexico that scandalized ardent defenders of European classical music, but became a landmark in the artistic history of Mexico.

Alberto Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and is widely regarded as the greatest Argentinean composer of the 20th century. He studied at the conservatory in Buenos Aires. After a visit to the U.S., where he studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, he returned to Buenos Aires and co-founded the League of Composers. Among his notable students was Ástor Piazzolla. The progressive rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer brought Ginastera attention outside of classical music circles when they adapted the fourth movement of his first piano concerto and recorded it on their popular album Brain Salad Surgery. By his own account, Ginastera saw his composing career as consisting of three creative periods. The first, from 1937-48, he called “Objective Nationalism,” in which he used Argentine folk music in his compositions. In his second period, “Subjective Nationalism” from 1948-56, the composer uses rhythms and creates folk-like melodies without actual quotation—much like the later work of Bartók and Kodály. The third period, “Neo-Expressionism” from 1957-83, saw Ginastera embrace twelve-tone technique.

+ About the Music

Metro Chabacano, Javier Álvarez
Álvarez writes, “The seminal idea for Metro Chabacano came from an earlier piece for string orchestra, Canción de Tierra y Esperanza, which I had given my parents as a Christmas gift in 1986. Having heard a demo recording of that piece, my friends from the Cuarteto Latinoamericano insisted that I should do a version for string quartet. But since none of us had a particular occasion in mind, the idea was somehow abandoned for a few years. In 1990, the sculptor Marcos Limenez approached me with the idea of using Canción…to accompany one of his astonishing kinetic installations. This was to be displayed in the world’s biggest and busiest subway station, Metro Chabacano in Mexico City. This provided the perfect motivation to revise the piece for the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, who gave the first performance there in 1991 as part of the inaugural ceremonies for the installation. The piece was subsequently performed on tape there for a period of three months.”

Metro Chabacano has a continuous eight-note movement of moderately driving speed from which short melodic solos emerge from each instrument. The repeated notes give a false sense of simplicity: although the piece is brief and in a single movement, the rhythms, accents, and melodic fragments that emerge from the moto perpetuo background are intricately playful.
--Daniel Vega-Albela

Tango Ballet, Ástor Piazzolla
Piazzolla wrote Tango Ballet for a short film in 1956. The music was more successful than the film. It was, however, an extremely difficult work, and was not performed again until 1989. In six sections, Tango Ballet slyly melds chamber music and ballet with tango themes (the Argentinean hadn't yet been bitten by the jazz bug when he wrote this).

Cuarteto para cuerdas No. 2, Roberto Sierra
was commissioned by Symphony Space for La Catrina Quartet with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, celebrating 50 years of building strong, creative communities in New York State's 62 counties.

Rhythmic and melodic gestures that breathe the air of my native Puerto Rico punctuate the first movement of this quartet-the tempo indication, "salseado," provides a stylistic clue for the players. Virtuosity and dynamic contrasts are among the expressive devices that surface in a tightly constructed musical structure organized within a framework of simple melodic scales. A dance-like bass line and a melody evocative of slow Latin ballads, known as "boleros," frame the second movement, which is followed by a wild scherzo. Instead of the traditional triple meter, I use an uneven pattern of 3+2. The quartet ends in a "perpetuum mobile" in which the constant pulse of eighth notes is heard throughout, and whose metaphor of continuity extends as well to the contrapuntal structure, a canon that stretches from beginning the end.
--Roberto Sierra

Cuarteto No. 1, Joaquin Gutiérrez-Héras
Following the tradition of great composers like Beethoven, Berlioz, and Wagner, Cuarteto No. 1 is constructed around the idea of stark contrasts, the materials of which derive from a concise yet powerful musical idea. Beethoven built all of his greatest works upon a single, germinal motive, the Satz (sentence). Berlioz and Wagner had the leitmotiv, or idée fixe. With a similar awareness of the architectural elements in music, Gutiérrez-Héras uses an angular, stone-like musical idea as the building block for his Cuarteto No. 1. This idea, which is presented as the first and last sound event in the score, has both structural and motivic functions. Structurally, it is used to develop the harmonic language that underlies the entire composition as well as the rhythmic contrasts that separate its different sections. Motivally, it gives rise to the lyrical, chant-like melodies as well as the furious, incisive, and rhythmically charged contrasting themes.

Cuarteto No. 1 is an exploration of the contrasts between time and timelessness, the material and the spiritual, love and hate, light and dark. His language often evokes indigenous Mexican rhythms and melodies, which lend themselves ideally to his musical vision. As with the keystone of a pre-Columbian pyramid, the listener is exposed to a study of perspective based on a structure growing from a single brick or idea.
--Daniel Vega-Albela

Intermezzo in E minor, Manuel Ponce
Ponce's most famous works were in his romantic style. The Intermezzo in E minor, originally for piano, with its mood of sweet, nostalgic melancholy, is one of these. He later evolved a quasi-impressionistic style and then a more avant-garde nationalistic style.

String Quartet No. 1, op. 20, Alberto Ginastera
String Quartet No. 1 is a good example of Ginastera’s first stylistic phase of “Objective Nationalism.” The first movement, in which driving rhythms contrast with spare, quiet music, evokes the rhythms and melodies of the gauchos (cowboys). A parallel to this evocation in Argentina’s literature might be found in some of the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. The second movement is also an “Evocation,” this time of a rural dance of the Pampas (plains) in the Criolla tradition called “Malambo.” In this dance, often lasting several hours, two men vie with each other in an aggressive display of dancing prowess, to the accompaniment of guitars. The third movement, “Nocturne,” opens with the suggestion of open string guitar tuning, a device that runs through other Ginastera works. This movement contains much interesting tone color, and features a beautiful solo for cello (his wife, Aurora Natola-Ginastera, a noted cellist, premiered many of his cello works). The final movement is a return to the high energy of the first movement. Two contrasting themes, one again evoking the strumming of guitars, the second derived from Criolla folksong tradition, alternate in varied tonal coloration.

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