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Brazil in Iowa

I attended the Finale Concert of the Brazilian Music Symposium this weekend on Saturday, October 18th with performances by guest artists and University of Iowa faculty and students. While I did not get the chance to attend the rest of the symposium, I was excited to hear and learn more about the music. The UCC recital hall was packed when I walked in to the concert and I was happy to snag one of the last chairs in the venue. Soon after, the place was reduced to standing room only, and still more and more people flooded into the recital hall.

The concert was bookended with ensemble pieces of guitar and clarinet, which is a common ensemble for choro music. Choro is a musical genre from Brazil that is solely instrumental, upbeat, often virtuosic, and includes improvisation. This genre was featured multiple times in this concert. The first piece was performed by Thomas Garcia on guitar, and the University of Iowa clarinet professor, Maurita Murphy Marx. Following them, Thiago Ancelmo de Souza, a graduate student studying with Dr. Marx at the University of Iowa (who is himself from Brazil), played a choro piece for clarinet and piano. Dr. Réne Lecuono professor of piano at the University of Iowa also played a solo piano piece from this genre. (For a brief overview of choro and some examples of the genre check out this radio story from NPR’s Soundcheck.)

From the standing room only section in the back of the hall, Benjamin Coelho, Professor of Bassoon at the University of Iowa, began his first piece. While playing, he then began walking up the center aisle and came to a stop in front of Maria José S. Barbosa playing the rest of the movement directly to her in appreciation of her work organizing the symposium. Also originally from Brazil, Professor Coelho shared with the audience translations of the movement titles and gave some cultural background with them. At one point he referenced a well-known Brazilian novel whose plot had been used as the basis of a popular soap opera and someone from the audience called out the name of the actress from the show. This moment of shared experience reminded me that the concert was not only about the music from one country, but a representation of ideas and culture shown through not only the music, but the personalities of the musicians, most of whom presented anecdotes about their pieces and how they were important to the culture as well as information about where different styles developed.

For me, the rest of the concert felt more nostalgic; an interpretation supported by the performance of Welson Tremura, associate professor at the University of Florida, who sang and played guitar in various Brazilian styles including tango, samba, and bossa nova. Dr. Tremura would play a tune and then present it in different styles and also switch between lyrics and verses of scat singing. A couple of the songs were known by the audience and he encouraged them to sing along, in Portuguese. It was especially captivating to witness this because I got the impression that half of the audience was familiar with the music and knew the words and the other half was as in the dark as I. As Dr. Tremura invited the audience to sing, a gentle murmur started up sporadically with more and more voices entering from different locations as the song went on.

Rafael dos Santos, professor of piano at Sao Paulo State University followed this with additional choro pieces on the piano. Each note seemed to flow smoothly and effortlessly into the next which emphasized the rhythmic syncopation of the jazz-like music. Then Dr. Tremura and Dr. Marx returned to the stage, with an additional player who accompanied them on the cavaquinho, a Brazilian ukulele. The ensemble was very enjoyable to watch because the performers brought out the dialogue between the parts with body language and shared looks. Along with the mood of the music there was a definite sense of camaraderie amongst the musicians. After the final piece, the performers received a standing ovation which elicited an encore. Dr. Tremura returned to the stage and began “The Girl from Ipanema.” One by one, dos Santos and then the cavaquihno player joined him onstage and the audience sang along, once in Portuguese and then in English giving even those of us who were mostly unfamiliar with the music a chance to sing along.

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