If you are like me, when you think of classical music, you think of all the European composers, Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, etc. You may also think about some of the English-speaking American composers like Copeland and Gershwin. What you may not think about is all the wonderful American composers south of our border. Cuarteto Latinoamericano not only brings this music to the world, but the four musicians, Saúl, Arón, and Álvaro Bitrán with Javier Montiel, are all from Latin America.
The quartet will be performing on April 23, 2022, presented by the Candlelight Concert Society which continues to bring Howard County and the surrounding area, some of the best classical musicians and performers. Cuarteto Latinoamericano will be performing music by Ignacio Jerusalén y Stella (1707-1769), Gustavo Campa (1863-1934), Manuel M Ponce (1882-1948), Carlos Chávez (1899-1978), Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) and Gabriella Ortiz (1968).
Background: Individually, we are Saúl, Arón, and Álvaro Bitrán, and Javier Montiel. Collectively, we are Cuarteto Latinoamericano, the Latin American Quartet. The public wonders many things about us. For example, if that huge case that always travels with us is a guitarrón. No, it’s a cello. And we are not mariachis either, nor do we play with ponchos or guitars, despite what many people ask us.
Of course, our name can be confusing. This names gives us our identity not only to the fact that we are Latin American, but also to the fact that we have made a career of almost forty years based on playing mainly classical music by Latin American composers. This music, the music of our continent, is as varied as its culture, its geography, its history and its cuisine. Some composers undoubtedly draw from the rich Latin American popular musical tradition while others write music of a universal character, which could have been written anywhere in the world. However, or so we are told, much of the Latin American repertoire contains an important rhythmic element.
Of course, like any group that starts in the already distant year of 1982, we started with Mozart, Beethoven, Borodin, Ravel, etc. Music and the visual arts provide rich spaces to explore a nation’s history, struggles, and cultural life. In Mexico, the long period surrounding the Revolution and up to the present has been characterized by a unique time of rich artistic creation. Mexico had notable impressionist painters and composers, as well as groundbreaking early modernists who paved the way for world renowned muralists like Orozco, Rivera, and Siqueiros, and the fantastic painter Frida Kahlo. Mexican arts have always engaged with personal, cultural, and political matters. Ponce’s romantic music was a prelude to the revolutionary modernism of Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas; later, Manuel Enríquez and Mario Lavista embarked on new aesthetic directions for Mexican music; and in the 21st century, eclectic composers, such as Gabriela Ortiz and Enrico Chapela, have challenged the traditional boundaries of classical concert music with remarkable success and an international presence.
Although the arts of Mexico have attracted much attention and exposure, rarely do we find how these intimately related art forms have been explored in conjunction, whether in galleries and museums, or in symphonic halls or chamber music venues. What can be experienced from studying the intersections between sound and color, light and form, between music and painting of the 20th century in Mexico? How can eyes perceive sonorities and rhythms, and ears enjoy form and color? During the concert, we will find out together!
We were discovering the wonderful music that awaited us in our own continent. And we also saw that there was great interest in it in various parts of the world. This is how this music, which we have recorded on more than eighty compact discs, has given us several awards—such as the Grammys or the Diapason D’O—and has taken us to places such as the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Carnegie Hall in New York, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, concert halls in Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and practically throughout Europe and America. To this day we continue to tour four continents with the scores of Villa-Lobos, Revueltas, Ginastera, Piazzolla, and many other great Latin American masters under our arms.
Sometimes we ask ourselves how it is possible that we have lasted together for so many years. We think that it is due to several factors, but above all to one: luck. A musician’s career is fragile by nature, as it depends entirely on the good health of the performer. This multiplied by four becomes even more delicate. But fate has been generous to us. Of course there are also other very relevant factors: the love for what we do, families that support us, the desire to play better every day, the love between the four of us and, why not say it, punctuality. Equally important for this long career has been the support we have received from many institutions to which we are very grateful—particularly the support of the National Fund for Culture and the Arts of Mexico through the México en Escena project. We are also excited to continue teaching at the many music schools, colleges and conservatories we are attached to, as well as participating in the festivals we regularly attend. Without a doubt, making music with great artists like Eduardo Mata, Janos Starker, Ramón Vargas, Jorge Federico Osorio, Wolfram Christ, Rudolph Buchbinder, or Manuel Barrueco is another factor that continues to fill us with inspiration. As our fortieth anniversary approaches, we continue to travel around the world.
Our hair has become sparser and grayer, and the instruments seem to weigh a little more each day. But the desire to continue interpreting the wonderful Latin American and universal repertoire for quartet, and of course the mutual affection that exists between the four of us, keeps us together, full of energy and always thinking about the next concert. All of this still seems like a miracle to us, which is why we feel very lucky and grateful to have made a lifetime of Cuarteto Latinoamericano.
Can you tell us were in are from?
Saúl Bitrán – Born in Mexico City, raised in Chile and Mexico Arón Bitrán – Born in Chile, raised in Chile and Mexico Javier Montiel – Born and raised in Mexico City
Álvaro Bitrán – Born in Chile, raised in Chile and Mexico
Where did you study music?
Saúl Bitrán – National Conservatories of Chile and Mexico, Rubin Academy at Tel Aviv University Arón Bitrán – National Conservatories of Chile and Mexico, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN Javier Montiel – National Conservatory of Mexico
Álvaro Bitrán – National Conservatories of Chile and Mexico, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
Can you tell us your favorite composters both from Latin America and around the world?
I personally don’t like to use the word “favorite” for a composer, because I have so many composers whom I admire, and also, my tastes change literally by the day. I can perhaps speak about the best-known composers of Latin America, who are probably Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alberto Ginastera, Silvestre Revueltas, Roberto Sierra, Tania León, Miguel del Aguila, Carlos Chavez, and many, many others. These are composers who have written music that is very much of their time, without losing the essence of Latin American culture and sound in their compositions—each in their own personal way and style. As far as world composers, as I said before, there is no way I can mention favorite names without leaving out dozens of others. I can say that today, my favorite composer is Tchaikovsky (because I am working on his fabulous Piano Trio). Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
You have been playing together for many years. What do you think has allowed your group to stay together for this long?
I have to say that the answer to that question remains elusive to me. I think it’s a combination of good luck, perseverance, humor, discipline, punctuality, respect, and tolerance. But it still astonishes me that we are together and getting along well after 40 years. I can’t tell you how it happened!
I ask this to all professional musicians. It is for those who think they might like to play any instrument professionally. Do you still practice and how often and long?
I am practicing the same amount as I did when I was 18, only with more wisdom and patience and, overall, enjoying it as never before! It is undoubtedly true that if you take an instrument professionally, and you want to make a good living from it, you need to practice it for the rest of your life. But practicing IS our job, like cleaning teeth for dental hygienists, filing taxes for accountants or cutting hair for hairdressers. Only, I think is more fun, and it keeps you young and mentally agile. The concerts are the reward, the cherry on the cake. The real work is the daily practice.
Cuarteto Latinoamericano, presented by Candlelight Society will be performing at the Smith Theatre, Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy, Columbia, MD 21044 on Saturday, April 23, 2022 at 7:30 pm. For tickets go to this link. Remember, music has no borders.