Music Monday: Mehmari: Villa-Lobos Variations

Many composers over the years have written variations on other composers’ themes as an homage to their friends and predecessors, and that tradition is alive and well today. André Mehmari was born in 1971 in Niterói, Brazil, and began studying music with his mother at the age of five. A precocious youth, he taught himself jazz improvisation by ear, and had established himself as a piano and organ teacher by the age of fifteen, with several compositions already under his belt. In 1995, he moved to São Paulo to study at the University of São Paulo*, and from there his career really took off, both as an active pianist (in multiple genres) and as a composer and arranger. He tours internationally, and has written works for major musical institutions both at home and abroad; he also enjoys an active life as a recording artist, with some of his albums being entirely improvised.

Even tho I featured Heitor Villa-Lobos recently, I didn’t features the work that Mehmari based his Villa-Lobos Variations (2006) on, because I’m not actually terribly fond of it. It’s the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 7, tho as far as I can tell, Mehmari only draws from the first movement and not the other three. Mehmari also shrinks down from a symphony orchestra to a chamber group of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and piano. Still, the prelude of the Villa-Lobos is instantly recognizable in Mehmari’s opening presentation, even pared down to this smaller group, the stormy bluster of the larger ensemble compressed into graceful, plangent lines of counterpoint and sorrow. The first variation gets off to a rollicking start in the solo piano, with only a brief central chorale to slow the motion. The scurrying motion intensifies and accelerates in the second, before petering out into the expansive stillness of the third.

Hocketed patterns, where melodic lines are broken up on an almost note-by-note basis, dominate the lilting fourth variation, which builds in intensity before the rather more bombastic fifth. This gives way to a tumultuous moto perpetuo of whirling chromatic lines, which ebbs in turn into music of distance and exhaustion. The eighth variation gets things going again with ominous mechanicality, including several winking references to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring [YouTube]. As tho in acknowledgement that additional sources are now fair game, the music then presents a second theme, tho still drawn from the prelude to the same Bachianas Brasileiras.

Mysterious, lyrical lines in the woodwinds mark the ninth variation (the first on this second theme), with occasional piano interludes that lead to a sudden and impassioned outburst. This collapses down into an unaccompanied melody in the lower regions of the piano, which seems to be building to something more when it is cut short by a horrific shrieking and thumping, leaving only a burned-out echo for the eleventh variation. Next is a tender waltz, followed in quick succession by two chorales, the first quiet and devout, the second impassioned and increasingly chaotic. A heavy, treading motion launches the final variation, which seems to have thrown off the melancholy of the opening to bask, however briefly in a transcendent warmth before slipping back into a wistful, nostalgic reprise of the themes on which this entire piece was built.

*The English biography on his website says “the São Paulo State University (USP)”, but São Paulo State University’s Portuguese acronym is UNESP, and the Portuguese version of his biography gives “Universidade de São Paulo”, so I think the English version is a translation error and should be the University of São Paulo instead. If anyone knows for certain one way or the other, please let me know!