‘A Quick 5’ with the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, String Quartet

From left to right: Saúl, Arón and Álvaro Bitrán and Javier Montiel, Cuarteto Latinoamericano.
Photo courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

If you’re like me, when you think of classical music, you think of all the European composers, Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, etc. You may also be thinking of some English-speaking American composers like Copeland and Gershwin. What you might not think of are all the wonderful American composers south of our border. The 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 perform on April 23, 2022, presented by the Candlelight Concert Society which continues to bring Howard County and surrounding areas some of the finest classical musicians and performers. The Cuarteto Latinoamericano will perform the music of 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 a lot 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 name gives us our identity not only to the fact that we are Latin Americans, but also to the fact that we have made a career of almost forty years based on the mainly classical music of Latin American composers. This music, the music of our continent, is as varied as its culture, geography, history and cuisine. Some composers undoubtedly draw from the rich Latin American popular musical tradition while others write music with a universal character, which could have been written anywhere in the world. However, we are told, much of the Latin American repertoire contains an important rhythmic element.

Of course, like any band 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 day has been characterized by a unique period of rich artistic creation. Mexico had notable impressionist painters and composers, as well as pioneers of modernity who paved the way for world-famous muralists like Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros, and the fantastic painter Frida Kahlo. Mexican arts have always addressed personal, cultural and political issues. 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 international presence.

Although the arts of Mexico have attracted much attention and exposure, we rarely find how these intertwined art forms have been explored together, whether in galleries and museums, or in symphony halls or chamber music halls. What does it feel like to study the intersections between sound and color, light and form, between music and painting in 20th century Mexico? How can the eyes perceive sounds and rhythms, and the ears appreciate shape and color? During the concert, we will discover it together!

We discovered the wonderful music that awaited us on our own continent. And we also found that it has a lot of interest in various parts of the world. This is how this music, which we have recorded on more than eighty compact discs, has earned us several awards, such as the Grammys or the Diapason D’O, and has taken us to places like the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, concert halls in Israel, Japan, New Zealand and practically all over 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 wonder how it is possible that we lasted together for so many years. We think it’s due to several factors, but mostly just one: luck. A musician’s career is fragile by nature, as it entirely depends on the good health of the performer. That multiplied by four gets even trickier. But fate has been generous with us. Of course, there are also other very relevant factors: the love for what we do, the families who support us, the desire to play better every day, the love between the four of us and, why not say, punctuality. Equally important for this long career has been the support we have received from many institutions to which we are very grateful, in particular the support of the National Fund for Culture and the Arts of Mexico through the México en Escena project. We are also delighted to continue to teach at the many music schools, colleges and conservatories to which we are attached, as well as to participate in the festivals which 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 inspire us. As we approach our fortieth anniversary, we continue to travel the world.

Our hair has become thinner and grayer, and the instruments seem to weigh a little more each day. But the desire to continue performing the wonderful Latin American and universal quartet repertoire, 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 this still seems like a miracle to us, which is why we feel very lucky and grateful to have made a lifetime of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano.

Can you tell us where they come 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 of 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 from Latin America and around the world?

Personally, I don’t like to use the word “favorite” for a composer, because I have so many composers that I look up to, and also my tastes literally change from day to day. I can perhaps speak of the most famous composers in Latin America, which are probably Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alberto Ginastera, Silvestre Revueltas, Roberto Sierra, Tania León, Miguel del Aguila, Carlos Chavez, and many others. They are composers who have written music that is largely of their time, without losing the essence of Latin American culture and sound in their compositions, each in their own way and style. When it comes to world composers, as I’ve said before, there’s no way I can mention favorite names without omitting dozens more. I can say that today my favorite composer is Tchaikovsky (because I’m working on his fabulous Piano Trio). Let’s see what tomorrow has in store for us.

You have been playing together for many years. What do you think has allowed your band to stay together for so long?

I must say that the answer to this question escapes me. I think it’s a combination of luck, perseverance, humor, discipline, punctuality, respect and tolerance. But it still amazes me that we’re together and get along well after 40 years. I can’t tell you how it happened!

I ask this question to all professional musicians. It’s for those who think they would love to play any instrument professionally. Do you still practice and how often and for how long?

I’m practicing the same amount as when I was 18, only with more wisdom and patience and overall enjoying it like never before! It’s probably true that if you pick up an instrument professionally, and want to make a good living from it, you should 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 it’s more fun, and it keeps you young and mentally nimble. The concerts are the reward, the icing on the cake. The real work is daily practice.

Cuarteto Latinoamericano, presented by Candlelight society will perform at the Smith Theater, 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 p.m. For tickets go to this link. Remember, music has no boundaries.

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