Agustín Fernández (composer)
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Mario Agustín Fernández Sánchez was born in the city of Cochabamba on 10 March 1958. His father, Mario Agustín Fernández Pommier, studied law at Universidad de La Plata in Argentina but was working in journalism at the time. His mother, Sarah Myrtha Isabel Sánchez Santamaría, was Argentinian and had met Fernández Sr while studying at La Plata.
Formerly an extended family of wealthy landowners with mine holdings in Oruro, and extensive properties in Ayopaya province, the Fernández clan were dispossessed as a result of stringent land reforms implemented by the government of Víctor Paz Estenssoro’s MNR (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolutionario) in 1952.[dubious ]
His father’s younger brothers became active in resistance operations, including a failed coup d’état in 1956, resulting in two of the composer’s uncles being confined in concentration camps. Fernández Sr himself had to flee state persecution in 1960, finding refuge with his young family in Montero, a smaller town north of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in eastern Bolivia.
The five years the family stayed in Montero had a formative effect on the future composer. In a country still riven by internecine rivalries along regional lines – east versus west, cambas versus collas – the young Fernández found himself astride the divide: a colla by birth, a camba by upbringing. The Spanish he learned had the camba accent, and the first music he heard were folk melodies of the east, mostly in the popular genres taquirari and carnaval. At this time, Fernández developed an early taste for singing, learning the repertoire peddled by local radio, mostly eastern folk songs. Other popular music came from Argentina, Cuba and, strongly reinforced by its hugely successful cinema industry, Mexico.
After a brief sojourn in La Paz (1965–1966), the family settled again in Cochabamba, where both his parents found employment with the daily newspaper Los Tiempos, newly resuscitated since its enforced closure by MNR in 1953.
In Cochabamba he attended Instituto Laredo, a specialist music school recently established by architect and musician Franklin Anaya. There he acquired skills in solfège (pitch and sight singing), theory, and a foundation in harmony and music history. He picked up the violin with some enthusiasm at first, but soon a change of teachers at Laredo discouraged him, and he stopped practicing.
At about the same time, his father became involved with Peña Ollantay, a successful folk club at a time when folk music was experiencing a revival countrywide. This meant free access to the shows at Ollantay for young Fernández, and, instantly, a new enthusiasm for folk music. He learned to play the charango and formed a duo with Toño Canelas, a highly talented singer and guitarist of the same age, and the son of Ollantay’s owners. The new duo, Los Kallahuayas, quickly became a convenient support number and stop-gap for the programmes at the Peña. They had were not well received, and, in addition to regular appearances at the Peña, Ollantay sent them on three tours: one to Oruro supporting Los Cuatro de Córdova, one to Santa Cruz supporting Los Caminantes, and another to Santa Cruz supporting Zulma Yugar. The duo folded after about a year, when Fernández’s voice broke. Canelas went on to join the hugely successful band Los Kjarkas, with whom he worked until his tragic death.
Free from singing duties, Fernández concentrated on the charango. A trip to La Paz brought him an appearance on national television and a gig at the prestigious Peña Naira. Back in Cochabamba, he competed in an inter-provincial charango competition, losing in the youth category.
At thirteen, Fernández was a voracious reader and was attempting to write short stories and poetry. A fortuitous stop at a public record-playing session at Centro Portales – live concerts were rare at the time – brought him into contact with classical music. Brahms's Horn Trio Op. 40 made a powerful impression, and by the end of the concert he had made up his mind to become a composer.
He took up the violin again, and poured his energies into his music studies at Instituto Laredo. His first compositional attempt was Rapsodia oriental, a string trio based on Lebanese melodies he had heard at the house of his school friend Alcides Mejía, himself later a founding member of the folk band Savia Andina. A Brahmsian trio for violin, cello and piano was begun but abandoned for lack of technical resources to develop the ideas. The Instituto’s director, Franklin Anaya, took him under his wing and gave him advice. It was Anaya who persuaded the young pupil of the need to go to La Paz to study composition with Alberto Villalpando.
An exploratory visit during the winter vacation in 1973 brought him into contact with the National Symphony Orchestra, then under the Soviet conductor Ruben Vartanyan, and with Walter Montenegro, a journalist, diplomat, and amateur violinist who would prove a lasting influence in Fernández’s life.
La Paz, 1974–1980
As soon as the 1973 school year ended, Fernández returned to La Paz and became involved with Bolivia's National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), getting his first work experience playing violins. He also began to attend composition lessons at Villalpando’s house. Villalpando, together with conductor Carlos Rosso, was planning to start a music degree course at Universidad Católica Boliviana, and they urged Fernández to apply. A dispensation from the university’s rector was required for his premature registration at the age of fifteen. Since the new course was a pilot experiment, it was titled Taller de Música (music workshop).
At about the same time, the NSO offered to formalise his placement with a paid position. The salary was sufficient for basic survival, and for paying private university fees.
The music workshop provided an intensive educational experience within a small and close-knit group of staff and students. The tuition included harmony, counterpoint, composition, conducting, music history, literature and film studies.
In 1975 he took part in a young composers’ competition in honour of the 150th anniversary of Bolivia’s declaration of independence. His Rapsodia won the prize and was performed by the NSO under Vartanyan, at a concert in the presence of the presidents of Bolivia and Venezuela.
A series of works followed Rapsodia, the most ambitious being Misa de Corpus Christi for two choirs, baritone and orchestra, which was to be his compositional thesis for the licentiate’s degree. This was performed under the young composer’s direction, three times in 1978 by the NSO, the Bolivian Choral Society, and the children’s choir of the Instituto Laredo, which travelled from Cochabamba for the occasion.
Meanwhile, Fernández rose through the ranks of the NSO and, after a period at the second desk of the first violins, he became principal violinist. He was appointed to the same position with the newly formed Municipal Chamber Orchestra. Orchestral work gave him a first-hand knowledge of the classical repertoire, with an emphasis on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He also undertook some chamber music work through occasional recitals with piano and with string quartets. Of these, a recurrent association was with three Japanese musicians working with the NSO under a cooperation agreement signed up by Walter Montenegro in his capacity as Bolivian ambassador in Tokyo. This collaboration gave rise to friendship, and Fernández developed a keen interest in Japanese language and culture. When the three visitors returned to Japan, they arranged an invitation for Fernández for a nine-month visit under a counterpart’s programme.
Fernández’s host for the year 1980–1981 was the government of Tochigi prefecture, and he found lodgings in the city of Utsunomiya. He took composition lessons as a foreign student with Takashi Iida, lecturer at the local university.
In March 1981, he returned to Bolivia on hearing of the death of his father but returned to Japan. Basing himself in Tokyo where he resumed violin lessons with Kobayashi, he was introduced by him to the composer Akira Ifukube,. Ifukube’s main claim to fame was based on his soundtracks for the hugely successful Godzila films, but he was also the composer of a vast array of concert works, many of them influenced by the music of the Ainu. Ifukube was unsympathetic to Fernández’s pursuit of composition as a distillation of folk-based ideas.
Fernández taught Spanish in the evenings and working mornings at the Bolivian Embassy, as private secretary to the ambassador, Roberto Pacheco Herzog to support himself. Afternoons were spent neglecting the violin, and the composition took a back seat. To extricate himself from this unwanted situation, he applied for a job teaching Spanish to JOCV volunteers in the small city of Komagane, in Nagano prefecture.
In 1983 he returned to Bolivia, working as co-leader of the La Paz Municipal Chamber Orchestra and harmony teacher at the National Conservatoire. After accepting an FCO scholarship to study in the United Kingdom, he moved to Cochabamba for a short period, teaching violin at Instituto Laredo.
United Kingdom, 1984 onwards
An offer of a place on the Master of Music (M.Mus.) at Liverpool University enabled Fernández to study composition with James Wishart (1956-2018), only two years his senior, son of the late composer Peter Wishart. He was also asked to lead the university orchestra. He soon came into contact with professional performers, such as Gemini – then led by Peter Wiegold – who premièred his first British work, Crossroads Talk at the Eleanore Rathbone Theatre. The première of his next work, Meditación No 1, attracted a complimentary review in the Daily Telegraph.
After the M.Mus. in Liverpool he enrolled for a PhD at City University, London, with FCO funding committed for two years. At City he was supervised by Steve Stanton and an external supervisor, Douglas Young. The memory of Young’s successes with his ensemble Dreamtiger was still fresh in the mid-1980s. Fernández was a student with Simon Bainbridge and Robert Saxton during their respective residencies at City. His first work of this period was Just a Dance (or Two), which was performed by the Guildhall Orchestra to a mixed reception. Fernández withdrew the piece and reworked it as Danza de la loma, which was premièred by Anemone of the University of York and then recorded for broadcast by the BBC Symphony.
To make ends meet in his third year at City, he sought part-time work, accepting a couple of commissions – from Liverpool Catholic Cathedral for Fuego and from Innererklang Music Theatre for Teoponte – and undertaking limited teaching duties at Morley College and at the Royal Ballet School. He also rekindled his folk practice, joining the band Grupo Bolivia led by Edgar Villarroel – formerly of Los Kjarkas – and forming a duo with guitarist Adrian Lee.
All this activity, though intended to enable the completion of his PhD, demanded so much time that it had the opposite effect; he failed to complete it within the statutory three years. Unable to remain or return to Britain on a student visa, he applied for employment, securing the position of composer-in-residence at Queen’s University Belfast. The post had been most recently occupied by Kevin Volans and, briefly, by Michael Alcorn.
In Belfast, Fernández was given an office on Botanic Avenue where he discharged his limited teaching duties, leaving him ample time to compose. Occasional commissions funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland were an important encouragement. He produced Botanic Spider, Botanic Journey, The Song of the Morrow and other works and undertook creative projects at schools, coming into contact with players from the Ulster Orchestra. But the orchestra itself did not play his music until 1993, when Diego Masson conducted Danza de la loma. A hoped-for commission for the orchestra was not to be.
An important part of the composer-in-residence’s duties was the chairmanship of the Sonorities Festival. Fernández supported Michael Alcorn's chairmanship for the 1991 festival, and then had the run of it in 1993. He chose a music-theatre theme, with Mauricio Kagel as the principal guest.
The most important composition of this period was the opera The Wheel commissioned by the Royal Opera House’s Garden Venture and performed in 1993 at London’s Riverside Studios, by the Endymion Ensemble and four singers. The run of four performances was well received, including favourable notices in the national press.
On completion of his contract in Belfast, Fernández worked for one year as a lecturer at Dartington College of Arts, then as appointed lecturer at Newcastle University, and to a chair in composition in 2007.
While at Newcastle Fernández produced his works of maturity. A notable success was Approaching Melmoth for baritone, choir and orchestra. Conceived as a musical exploration of scenes and characters from Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, the work was commissioned by the Royal Northern Sinfonia and performed in 2000 by the orchestra and its chorus, with Sir Thomas Allen as soloist.
An ongoing collaboration with the Momenta Quartet of New York resulted in two string quartets. This first, subtitled 'Montes' (2007), was dedicated to the then recently deceased Bolivian painter Fernando Montes, engaging with one of his paintings in each of the quartet’s three movements. The second, subtitled 'Sin tiempo', is the latest instalment in a series of works connected with the guerrilla campaign of Teoponte in 1970. It was commissioned by Momenta Quartet with the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress and it has been performed a number of times by Momenta and by Romania's Profil Quartet.
Among other creative partnerships there stand out a collaboration with the poet Sean O'Brien on the work Notes from Underground for baritone, choir and large chamber ensemble.
Throughout his time in Britain, Fernández has remained a regular visitor to his homeland, both to visit family and for professional engagements, such as a visiting lectureship at Universidad Católica Boliviana in 2001, a creative project with El Alto Youth Orchestra (2007), a run of performances of the reconstructed Misa de Corpus Christi in Cochabamba and La Paz in 2010 and 2011, and conducting engagements with youth orchestras such as that at Instituto Laredo in August 2017.
Fernández is a regular visitor to Romania for speaking and performance engagements at the Sigismund Toduță International Festival in Cluj-Napoca and the SIMN Festival in Bucharest. In 2018 the Music Academy Gheorghe Dima (Cluj-Napoca) awarded him an honorary doctorate.
In 1991 Fernández destroyed the originals of most of his works written before 1984. Among those discarded was the score of Rapsodia, the winning work of the Sesquicentennary Prize in 1975, which had been premièred by the National Symphony under Ruben Vartanyan.
Only a handful were spared, including Tres canciones sobre poemas de Rachel (La Paz 1976) the song cycle El anillo (La Paz 1976, now published by Tritó), the Sanctus from Misa de Corpus Christi (La Paz 1978) and Cantata de Navidad y Epifanía (Cochabamba 1978). From this early period, the most frequently performed piece is the anthem to Instituto Laredo (1979), which remains a staple of school concerts, ceremonies and festivals at Laredo.
Although very successful at the time of its première in La Paz in 1978, Misa de Corpus Christi did not survive the self-critical cull of 1991. Nearly twenty years later, a group of Cochabamba-based musicians and promoters led by the conductor Augusto Guzmán made a proposal to revive the work, this time with an entirely local team (the 1978 première had used the children's choir of Instituto Laredo). The composer's destruction of this work's original original material, compounded by the loss of the copy held in the archives of La Paz's Catholic University, to whom Fernández had submitted it as a thesis for the Licentiate's degree, posed an insurmountable obstacle, until Fernández agreed to reconstruct the piece, partly from memory and partly from a fragmentary choral score retrieved in the later stages of reconstruction. The result was premièred in 2010 in an emotionally charged concert to a capacity audience of one thousand at El Campo, Cochabamba. Subsequent performances of the reconstructed work in Tarata and in other Cochabamba venues were also enthusiastically received, but a tour of the work to other Bolivian cities in 2011 was mired in cancellations and poorly promoted concerts.
Another survivor from the same early period of religious-inspired composition is Cantata de Navidad y Epifanía, a work for baritone, children's choir and baritone soloist which was performed a number of times in Gran Canaria in the first decade of the new century.
Fernández’s first British piece, Crossroads Talk (Liverpool 1984), takes an experimental approach to physical action on stage, prescribing routes and frequency of steps across the stage for each player in such a way that when players meet mid-stage a sprechgesang conversation takes place among varying combinations of players. The topic is the stoppages and food shortages disrupting everyday life in Bolivia. Dedicated to Akira Ifukube, Meditación No. 1 (Liverpool 1985) explores rhythm, pacing and degrees of intensity in connection with Fernández’s experiences with za-zen while in Japan.
It can be argued that the overarching theme of the works written in the 1980s was the processing of Fernández’s Latin American folkloric background with the aim of assimilating it into a contemporary idiom. The challenge involved transcending earlier models based on quotation, folk modality and the prevalence of percussive rhythm. Translation of textural patterns from Andean instruments held some appeal, as evinced in Pájaro negro and in the electroacoustic works Teoponte and Wounded Angel. Bespoke modes, sometimes differentiated according to range (pitch content varying beyond designated boundaries) formed the basis for the pitch organisation of Pájaro negro, Danza de la loma (York 1986) and Fuego (Liverpool 1987).
Some of the traumatic events in the political life of 1970s and 1980s South America find expression in works such as Fuego for orchestra, an impassioned threnody for the victims of caso quemados in Pinochet’s Chile (1987). The electroacoustic opera Teoponte (London International Opera Festival 1988) explores themes of memory and loss connected with a guerrilla campaign in Bolivia in 1970. The thematic impetus of these two subjects has generated further works that revisit the same themes; ideas from Fuego return in Mystical Dances (Huddersfield Festival 2006), Notes from Underground (Durham Book Festival 2016) and James’s Fire (Liverpool 2016), whereas the revolutionary drama that inspired Teoponte is treated again in Souvenir de Teoponte (Vienna 2012) and in the Koussevitzky-commissioned String Quartet No. 2 ‘Sin tiempo’ (New York 2013).
Another recurrent theme is the musical exploration of ideas connected with flight and aviary imagery. Pájaro negro is the first in a series that encompasses The Falcon’s Kiss (Cardiff 1994) and Peregrine (New York 1996).
The turn of the century brought a predominance of medium- to large-scale works in several movements, beginning with Approaching Melmoth (2000). Multi-movement structures have provided a space in which to explore at length some of his current preoccupations, such as music and landscape (Mystical Dances, String Quartet No. 1 'Montes', Notes from Underground) and collective memory and martyrdom (String Quartet No. 2 'Sin tiempo'). The two string quartets, resulting from ongoing collaboration with the Momenta Quartet of New York, are among his most strikingly individual works, benefiting from committed championship by Momenta. A performance of the Second Quartet in the 2017 Momenta Festival caused one critic to enthuse " ... [New York] ... needs an Agustín Fernández festival".
The operatic stage holds an appeal that is yet to translate into a full-scale opera. Teoponte mixed reviews at its première in the 1988 London Festival. It then underwent extensive revision and it engendered a number of instrumental sequels, but the opera itself was never performed again. A Royal Opera House Garden Venture commission, which premièred to critical acclaim in London in 1993, was followed by short operas such as Books and Night (Bury St Edmonds 1995) and Prison Letters (Newcastle upon Tyne 2013), which are modest in scale and can be seen as further exercises in preparation for larger works. The orchestral-choral work Approaching Melmoth (Newcastle upon Tyne 2000) was explicitly described as a preparatory exploration for an opera at its première with Thomas Allen in the baritone part.
- Suteu, C, 'DHC în 3D: Doctor Honoris Causa cu valențe tridimensionale la Academia de Muzică din Cluj', in Actualitatea Muzicală No. 7, July 2018
- El Diario, La Paz, 2 July 1978
- Los Tiempos, Cochabamba, 28 October 2010
- "A Stunning, Harrowing, Relevant Night at This Year's Momenta Festival". New York Music Daily. 2017-10-03. Retrieved 2018-06-09.
- Joel Sachs. "Fernández, Agustín." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 10 Aug. 2014. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/46947>
- The Living Composers Project, www.composers21.com/compdocs/fernanda.htm
- Interview with Dr Agustín Fernández, www.akiraifukube.org/fernandez_interview.htm