The San Diego Symphony and San Diego Master Chorale Join Forces for the ‘Cantata Criolla’ by Venezuelan Composer Antonio Estévez

San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare opened the 2022-23 Jacobs Masterworks Season with one of the greatest choral works, the Verdi Requiem. Now, as this successful season comes to a close, Payare will conduct a lesser known major choral offering, Venezuelan composer Antonio Estévez’s Cantata criolla, ‘Florentino, el que canto con el Diablo.’

John K. Russell [photo courtesy of the artist]

Because Estévez was not a composer on my radar, I asked John K. Russell, Music Director of the San Diego Master Chorale, what experience he had with this composer.

“The well-known Venezuelan choral conductor Maria Guinand published a short work of his, Mata del anima sola, which has become popular among American high school honor choirs,” Russell explained. In the spring of 2014, Guinand was featured as a guest conductor of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, and she brought to that concert a program of Venezuelan choral works.

“But that was the only Estévez choral work I knew until I read through the program notes of a San Diego Symphony concert led by Rafael Payare—his second concert as the orchestra’s Music Director—that featured Estévez’s orchestral work Mediodia en el llano. The notes referred to his major choral work Cantata criolla, so I expressed my interest in that work to Payare.”

Estévez’s Cantata criolla from 1954 is based on a long poem by the Venezuelan Albert Árvelo Torrealba that relates a singing competition between the Devil and Florentino, a sort of Everyman character from the high plains of Venezuela.

“It calls for full orchestra with a large percussion section full of exotic instruments and a mixed SATB choir. We will have 90 singers for this performance, and their role is to set the stage for Florentino, who is sung by tenor Aquiles Machado.” The character of Florentino represents the coplero, a rural singer-poet who might be compared to the North American singing cowboy. The role of the Devil in this program is sung by baritone Gustavo Castillo.

“Estévez’s musical style is highly rhythmic, relying on the joropo, a lively traditional dance that developed in the plains of western Venezuela. I would compare Estévez’s style for the choral writing to Igor Stravinsky in his neoclassical period, but the orchestra’s part, written in a more folk-national style with the dance rhythms, is closer to the Argentine Alberto GInastera.”

Russell noted that this was the first time he has prepared the Master Chorale to perform a major work in Spanish.

“The language and style of the Estévez has been a challenge for the singers, but it comes as a welcome change after the Rachmaninoff.”

The Master Chorale’s most recent performance was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s great liturgical work The All-Night Vigil.

The San Diego Symphony and San Diego Master Chorale will perform Antonio Estévez’s ‘Cantata criolla’ at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park May 26 & 27, 2023.

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