Monday, April 8, 2019

Composer & Soloist Profile: Xavier Beteta in Conversation with Christian Baldini

On April 27, our program "Exuberant Energy" with the Camellia Symphony Orchestra will feature works by Gabriela Lena Frank, Xavier Beteta and Mozart. Below is an interview with pianist and composer Xavier Beteta.

Christian Baldini: Xavier, it is a pleasure to feature the US premiere of your Piano Concerto "Tomás de Merlo" in Sacramento with you as our soloist. You performed the world premiere of this piece a few months ago in Guatemala, your home country. What can you tell us about the genesis of this piece, and your inspiration in the painter Tomás de Merlo and his stolen paintings?

Xavier Beteta: First, thank you Christian for the invitation to perform with the Camellia Symphony and for featuring the US premiere of my piano concerto. The concerto is inspired by three paintings by XVII century Guatemalan painter Tomás de Merlo. De Merlo was one of the most important colonial painters with a distilled and very original style. In his paintings some characters have “mestizo” and indigenous features, thus, representing the traditional Christian themes in the entourage of the New World. In 2014, six of his paintings were stolen from thechurch “El Calvario” in Antigua Guatemala. When I read the news, I felt frustrated and was confronted with the impossibility of doing something about it, thus, I decided to write a piece of music that somehow could connect with these paintings. I chose three of the stolen paintings, “The Prayer in the Garden, “The Pietá” and “The Crowning with Thorns,” which depict scenes of the passion of Christ. To write this piece I requested high resolution pictures of the paintings and used them to improvise at the piano. Each movement comes from a process of first improvising and recording musical ideas at the piano, and later giving it final form as a three-movement concerto. The plundering of colonial art in Guatemala is a raising problem. While in law school, one of my research topics was precisely the protection of cultural heritage and I wrote a paper about the different international conventions that protect colonial art. I hope writing a piece of music about this topic could help create awareness of this problem, and hopefully inspire authorities to do more to protect the artistic treasures of different countries.

CB: And how was your experience performing it with the National Symphony in your own country? After living in the US for pretty much half of your life, how does it feel to go back to your origins and share everything you've learned as an artist, composer and pianist with your community?

XB: It was a rewarding experience. I think a lot of good and interesting things are happening musically in Guatemala, there is a new generation of young talents willing to perform contemporary music. While in Guatemala this past November, I had the opportunity to teach some master classes and give a talk about my aesthetics as a composer. I was also able to reconnect with friends and students and to talk about possible projects for the future. Regarding the premiere of my piano concerto, I think it was well received. The main figures of the musical and artistic scene in Guatemala were there that night. It was a memorable concert because it also had first performances of works by Manuel Martinez-Sobral and Ricardo Castillo, two Guatemalan composers of the early 20th century that are rarely heard. Thus, in a way, it was a concert that opened horizons to perform more Guatemalan repertoire. 

CB: Tell us about important figures that have inspired you in your education and training. Who are those people that you will always be grateful to, and why?

XB: I would mention three, my piano teachers Sylvia Kersenbaum and Sergei Polusmiak and my first composition teacher Rodrigo Asturias. Kersenbaum was a teacher that knew basically all the pianistic repertoire by heart, and I was fortunate to meet her at a time in my studies where I needed to develop technique and a sense of originality. Polusmiak studied with Regina Horowitz (sister of Vladimir) and through him I learned the basics of the Russian school of piano: the importance of good sound, impeccable technique, and musical expression. My composition professor Rodrigo Asturias was probably the most influential. I was his only composition student, and he taught me composition because he believed in me. He introduced me to a lot of contemporary music but also, to literature and philosophy. Our meetings were full of discussions of Proust, Musil, Mallarmé, Celine, and many others, and lots of listening of the main masterpieces of the 20th century. He introduced me not only to the main figures like Boulez or Stockhausen, but also to figures like Bernd Alois Zimmerman, Koechlin, and Jolivet. He set a good example for me.

Now that time has passed and I look back, I can see that, in the three of them, there was, above all, a deep humbleness, and that’s what I admire the most in them. I think the greatest an artist is, the humbler he or she becomes because they are conscious of how long the road is. I think that sense of humility is something we don’t see anymore, especially nowadays where facebook and the social media outlets have created a culture of egocentrism.    

CB: In your opinion, what is the role of art in society nowadays? We keep hearing or reading these dark comments that classical music audiences are aging, do you believe in this, and if so, what should or could be done to reverse this trend and invigorate our audiences?

XB: I believe the role of art in society should always be that of questioning and formulating critique. It is in art where we first sense the ethos of a time and a culture, thus, it is extremely important to create new art, and also propose new trends that can formulate a critique to the current discourses, always informed with a sense of tradition and what has been done before. True art is not entertainment, it is a window into the transcendent and points toward the deepest nature of humanity.

Regarding the dark comments you mention, I believe good music will continue to be done and people who appreciate good music will continue to ask for it. So, I think there will always be people interested in classical music, but it is true that audiences are shrinking. Changing this is not an easy task, but a good start could be to learn “how to feel.”

CB: Thank you for your time and for your very interesting answers, we look forward to featuring you both as a composer and our soloist for our upcoming concert!

XB: Thank you Christian, it is a pleasure to collaborate with you.

Xavier Beteta (composer and pianist)
Born in Guatemala City, Xavier studied piano at the National Conservatory of Guatemala with Consuelo Medinilla. At age 18, he was awarded the first-prize at the Augusto Ardenois National Piano Competition and third-prize at the Rafael Alvarez Ovalle Composition Competition in Guatemala. He continued his piano studies in the United States with Argentinean pianist Sylvia Kersenbaum and with Russian pianist Sergei Polusmiak. He also attended master-classes with pianists Massimiliano Damerini and Daniel Rivera in Italy. Xavier has performed in different venues in the United States, Europe and Latin America and has been a soloist with the Guatemalan National Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra Augusto Ardenois.

As a composer, Xavier did most of his studies privately with Rodrigo Asturias. In 2013 he won the Second Place at the fourth International Antonin Dvorak Composition Competition in Prague. Xavier studied music theory at the University of Cincinnati where his thesis about the music of Rodrigo Asturias was ranked no. 4 in the National Best-Seller Dissertation List. He recently finished his Ph.D. in composition at the University of California San Diego with Roger Reynolds.  

At UCSD he also studied with Philippe Manoury and Chinary Ung. His compositions have been performed in diverse festivals such as Festival Musica in Strasbourg, France, Darmstadt Composition Summer Courses in Germany, June in Buffalo, SICPP in Boston, Opera Theater Festival of Lucca, Italy and by ensembles such as Accroche NoteEnsemble Signal, and UCSD Palimpsest.

Xavier also holds a law degree from Salmon P. Chase College of Law and his diverse interests include art law, copyright, poetry, and tango.

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