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Life’s Moments

Conductor and Professor Olivier Toni, 88, launches first CD featuring his own works

Toni (center) with Claudio Cruz (left) and Paulo Álvares: mentor to renowned Musicians

Léo RamosToni (center) with Claudio Cruz (left) and Paulo Álvares: mentor to renowned MusiciansLéo Ramos

Like the raven in the acclaimed poem by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), so can the legacy of conductor, composer and professor Olivier Toni in the world of Brazilian classical music be described as lofty and noble. Mentor to countless renowned musicians, including composers Gilberto Mendes and Willy Corrêa de Oliveira, conductor and music arranger Rogério Duprat, violinist Fabio Zanon, pianist André Mehmari, and conductor and violinist Claudio Cruz, only now, at age 88, are Toni’s own compositions finally on CD. The recordings range from 3 Variations for Orchestra from 1959, an early concert piece that premiered at a 1963 performance by the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, to In Memoriam W. A. Mozart, a piece for solo violin composed in 2012. The CD, featuring Cruz on violin and viola and Paulo Álvares on piano, was released October 21, 2014 at the Sesc [Social Service of Commerce] in Consolação.

Founder of the music department of the University of São Paulo School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP), the São Paulo Youth Orchestra (later renamed Experimental Repertory Orchestra), the São Paulo Chamber Orchestra, the USP Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, and the Prados Festival in the interior of the State of Minas Gerais almost 30 years ago, Maestro Toni says that these decades of activities allowed little opportunity for him to focus on promoting his work. Willy Corrêa de Oliveira, writing about his mentor in the CD booklet, compares Toni to Webern (whose body of work was also relatively small) and asks why he composed so infrequently. Oliveira concludes that the Maestro’s students were responsible for “what little time he had for his own work.”

“Writing music demands quiet isolation that allows you to  focus on the task. I just wrote a piece less than a month ago, and having to rewrite and delete parts was an enormous chore. It’s not easy when you’re busy doing other things,” says Toni. “I’ve always been quite amused by my friends who think of nothing but recording a CD. But I never bothered with that.” It was Claudia, one of Toni’s daughters, who finally spoke to her father’s friends about getting the project going. Claudio Cruz called the musicians together. “In the end I was very happy. Some of the orchestral pieces that I wanted recorded were not considered for the disc because of the high cost,” adds Toni.

The cover to the CD: music inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven

Public domain image The cover to the CD: music inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s The RavenPublic domain image

The Maestro is all too familiar with the difficulty of introducing new repertoires into the concert circuit: trouble not only with the musicians, but also in dealing with a public accustomed to listening to standard works by the same popular composers.  This recording owes much to the extraordinary importance of what Willy Corrêa calls the “multi-sonorous” quality of Toni’s piano. With the ability to compose using just a few notes, “Toni, through his keyboard, weaves new musical patterns, exquisite arabesques, and rhythmic games of high points and dense structures that find their way past the boundary of counterpoint and accompanied melody,” says Corrêa.

“I’m not content to do what others have done,” says the Maestro. “I sometimes can’t make use of certain structures that employ all available notes, but in the final analysis I listen to a structure similar to Villa-Lobos and another to Stravinsky, so I alter some of my own notes and some of Villa-Lobos’, and in the end it’s all the same. My compositions could have a lot of notes, but they will always be the same ones. I use seven instead of 12. Of course, it’s a problem we musicians have: it’s getting to be that more and more, only musicians understand music.”

Beyond Expectations
The Sesc-labeled CD takes it title, Só Isso e Nada Mais [Just This and Nothing More], from the first track, a piece for voice, double bass, trumpet and string orchestra inspired by Poe’s poem The Raven. Soprano Caroline De Comi sings three stanzas from the Milton Amado translation of Poe, which Toni chose from among the many other classic renditions, including those of Machado de Assis and Fernando Pessoa.

“I chose the Milton Amado version because it is superb—the most beautiful of all. He conveys the physical scope of Poe’s poem, and in a way I kept to the rhythm of his verse when composing my music. This point is very interesting—I couldn’t alter the meter; otherwise it couldn’t have been sung,” says the Maestro, who emphasizes the extraordinary care he devotes to prosody, a quality that many composers—of both classical and popular music—overlook. “The raven doesn’t talk, but is always present and in conversation with the song, in those same glissando notes—that strange sound heard at the wondrous moment of a bird’s nocturnal flight.”

The song sets out to narrate the story, but, ever striving to avoid repeating what has already been done, Toni does the unexpected by exploring Poe’s life, especially the period after the death of his beloved Lenora, when his anguish inspired The Raven. The recording references two examples of startling blasts of trumpet: that of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.3 with its characteristic trumpet motif—and “which I could not include more than once; and that’s where creativity comes in,” says Toni—and Il Tabarro by Puccini, a composer much admired by Toni. “The trumpet that precedes the famous monologue is awe-inspiring and that’s why I chose it.  I pay tribute to these two composers. The music is military music, it’s not even theirs, but it works incredibly well with Edgar Allen Poe’s poem.”

In this recording of numerous tributes—to disciples, family members, friends, historical figures, and classical composers like Mozart and Camargo Guarnieri whom the composer admires or who have influenced him—Toni looks to two other literary sources of inspiration for his compositions. One of these, the story of the mythic slave Chico Rei, became his 1994 piece for voice and flute, with verse recitation by Renata Pallotini. The work pays homage to the myth of Zumbi dos Palmares [a legendary slave leader of the 17th Century who, having led a successful revolt of fellow slaves, founded the fugitive colony of Palmares in the Brazilian backlands]  “in a manner,” writes the Maestro, “characteristic of the Yoruba.” Toni adds that “there is dance that is loosely inspired on the batuque and African song, not on what is done today.”

The other composition, Três Instantes da Vida (2009) [Three Moments in Life], takes its inspiration from two poems of João Cunha Andrade’s book A Árvore da Montanha [The Tree on the Mountain]   Written for voice, flute and percussion, this piece is the last track on the CD and closes the thematic circle of Poe’s poem to the beat of a  caixa (percussion instrument), that the Maestro describes as “the essence of life’s end.” He goes on to say “the third phase incorporates a part of the poem that in a few words says ‘that what I love so deeply becomes visible during my final moments’, meaning I don’t want the one for whom I have such love to die before I do; I want to go away with the object of my love still before my eyes. I included this because it’s the way things are with my wife. We’ve been together for 62 years. I don’t want to see her go before I do.”