E. CORDERO: Concierto Festivo for Guitar and Strings (2003). Insula: Suite Concertante for Violin and Strings (2009). Concertino Tropical for Violin and Strings (1998).
Pepe Romero (guitar); Guillermo Figueroa (violin); I Solisti di Zagreb.
Naxos 8.572707 TT: 51:33.

Avoiding clichés. Many of my musical discoveries stem from my ignorance and inattention. I once bought a CD of music by Kirchner, thinking it was the American Modern Leon Kirchner, and got a charmer of a piano trio by Theodor Kirchner, friend of Brahms. I ordered this CD thinking I was getting music by the fiery Panamanian Roque Cordero. Instead, I discovered the fiery Ernesto Cordero, guitarist and composer from Puerto Rico.

Cordero studied with, among others, the Cuban Julián Orbón, who had settled in New York during the Sixties. He has written a ton of guitar music. If I consider the three pieces here (the only bit of Cordero's music I've heard), he follows Orbón's neoclassical and nationalist musical bent, only for Puerto Rico.

As a composer, Cordero is a bit loose, weak in development. He seems to have trouble modulating, and as a result, his music "sticks" over long stretches, the architecture somewhat flat. Nevertheless, none of these things seems to really matter. He has a lot of verve.

Cordero began the Concierto Festivo with the idea of avoiding guitar-music "clichés," by which I assume he means the Latin-Iberian idiom, a powerful lure on even non-Hispanic composers for the guitar. Even Cordero happily admits he only partially succeeded. He begins with a declamatory, stamping idea -- Bartók translated to Latin America. I especially like a particular effect: little "screams" from the violins punctuating the main idea. This contrasts with a lyrical bit, but the main rhythm, an Afro-Hispanic staple of 3+3+2, seldom leaves the scene for long. The second movement, gently glum and similar in feeling to, say, the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez but slightly more "pop" in idiom, alternates between the intimate and the stately. The third movement begins austerely, but it then changes to a quick-moving, near moto-perpetuo, with rapid guitar figurations against the declamatory idea. The longest movement of the three, it meanders the most as well, but a consistently high level of invention keeps a listener from tuning out.

Writers have variously described Ínsulá as a violin concerto and as a suite. I lean toward suite, again mainly because architecture isn't Cordero's long suit. The work has four movements: "Paisajes" (landscapes), Andante con anima; "Jájome (Meditación)," Andante affabile; "Las Indieras de Maricao" (the aboriginal Indians of Marcao), Andantino misterioso; "Fantasia salsera," Allegro ritmico. Most of the movements are dance-based. Cordero admits to a nod in the direction of Satie's Gymnopédies in the serene second movement. Jájome, incidentally, refers a mountain ridge in the middle of Puerto Rico. For me, the most interesting movement, "Las Indieras" evokes Native American culture through a minor pentatonic scale (eg, E-flat- G-flat - A-flat - B-flat - D-flat). Cordero flirts with boredom here, but doesn't succumb. The finale evokes Latin pop (think "salsa"), with, again, the Afro-Hispanic 3+3+2 (also, incidentally, a feature of Elmer Bernstein's score for The Magnificent Seven) driving much of it.

This same rhythm opens the Concertino Tropical, also for violin. The contrast comes mainly from an extended violin cadenza as the middle, after which we return to the opening idea. Cordero again seems to receive inspiration from the Puerto Rican landscape. The work consists of the following three movements: "Yerba bruja" (witch-herb), Allegro vivace; "Los caobos" (the mahogany trees), Adagio malinconico; "El colibri dorado" (the golden hummingbird), Energico. The titles describe the music well in general, but music is never "in general." This particular music, especially the melancholy second movement, gratifies the ear.

As for the performers, they are all, of course, royalty. Was there ever a better guitarist than Pepe Romero in his prime? For all I know, he may still be in his prime. I Solisti di Zagreb has long been one of my favorite chamber ensembles, combining warmth and great musicianship. Guillermo Figueroa has flown under the general public's radar as a violinist and a conductor, but musicians know him well. He was concertmaster of the New York City Ballet and conductor of the New Mexico and Puerto Rico Symphonies. Mario Davidowsky and Harold Farberman, as well as Ernesto Cordero, have written concerted works for him. I believe he may have been the first violinist to record all three Bartók violin sonatas on one CD. The performers are all anybody could ask for, including the composer. I hope he thanked them.

S.G.S. (March 2012)