Cuarteto Latinoamericano is the classical world's only full-time string chamber ensemble made up exclusively of Latin American musicians--but don't make the mistake of dismissing the group as a novelty. Performances by the foursome (Saul Bitran, older brothers Aron and Alvaro Bitran, and Javier Montiel) have earned glowing notices from reviewers around the world, and wonderful recordings such as 1992's Memorias Tropicales and 1995's Reza Vali: Persian Folklore (both issued on the New Albion label) have garnered raves as well. But according to Saul, the quartet's first violinist, the most frequent reaction to the act by those unfamiliar with it is surprise at the Latin heritage that runs through its lineup. And that, he admits, is both perplexing and frustrating.
"I tell you, it is something that we really can't understand," he says. "Why is it so unusual for people to think of a chamber ensemble in Latin America? We grew up in Mexico City, and we have lived in other cities in Latin America that are so cosmopolitan and so full of physical activity. Some cities are just like San Francisco, New York and Paris. We don't feel that our cities lack in Western, sophisticated culture. It's just the image.
"Of course, the rural parts of Latin America are more backwards and more folkloric. But the major capitals are just as cosmopolitan as prominent American cities. And we are very surprised to know that people don't have this awareness. Buenos Aires has always been the opera capital of the Western hemisphere, almost like Milan. And Mexico City alone has seven full-time symphonic orchestras."
Because of the inaccurate views of Latin America held by many citizens in the United States and elsewhere, Saul believes that the members of Cuarteto Latinoamericano have responsibilities that go beyond merely making the best music they can. They also need to educate people about their homeland. In his view, "It is so extremely unfair: Our countries are known for a variety of reasons, like food and beaches and vacation destinations, but people do not know very much about the culture. I feel that might be starting to change, and we are very happy about that--to be part of those helping that paradigm shift that is starting to happen now."
Aron, the quartet's second violinist, Alvaro, its cellist, and violist Montiel have been working collectively toward this goal since forming the quartet in Mexico seventeen years ago. Saul (who, like his siblings, was born in Chile) entered the fold in 1986, after the combo's original first violinist returned to his native Uruguay. "At that time, I was finishing my violin studies in Israel," Saul remembers. "But when they called and invited me to join, I quickly accepted. Now we are three brothers in the group. Our violist is the only non-brother."
Working with kin hasn't caused any problems for Saul, in large part because he's been playing in groups with his brothers since his Mexico City childhood. "We used to have a quartet at home, actually," he says. "My father is an amateur violist, and he's the one who got us started into chamber music. Eventually, as we progressed, we had to kick him out, but he still plays every week with an amateur quartet. So we have been playing together for a long time. We have always gotten along well, both personally and musically. We are different, the three of us, and I think that helps. We all live in different cities, have different interests, friends and social activities. At the moments of work, the brother issue doesn't have any role to play. We're just colleagues, and we are very open and frank about musical issues and criticism, when that is needed."
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The professionalism and skill at the heart of the quartet's approach has been noted by reviewers in Mexico (that country's National Music Critics Association conferred its highest award on the act in 1983) and parts beyond (the New York Times raved about the quartet's 1989 recording of works by Latin composers Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alberto Ginastera and Silvestre Revueltas). These qualities have also won for the instrumentalists a place in academia. For the past nine years they've served as quartet-in-residence at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, and they maintain affiliations with Mexico's San Miguel de Allende Chamber Music Festival and the National Center for the Arts, in Mexico City.
However, the Cuarteto remains best known for its recordings of pieces written by Latin artists, and Saul reveals that its next long-player for New Albion, which the players plan to start recording in Mexico City this December, will follow the same formula: The album is set to feature a series of succinct efforts that display a distinctly Latin character. The group has also completed the third edition of a proposed seventeen-volume set devoted to the string quartets of Villa-Lobos. But Saul stresses that he and his comrades are open to playing anything. "We really judge music according to aesthetic value. In Latin America, we don't really think that there is all that much music that has already been written that we can play. We have already played or recorded most of what we think exists, and is good, in Latin America. But we are looking forward to continuing to receive scores as they are written. And I hope that composers will continue to write good music and that we'll get to play it. We want to provide a permanent situation where Latin American composers--and all contemporary composers--know that there are players who can play their music well and take it to all the world.
"We feel that, despite the crisis of classical music that we all hear about, there hasn't ever been a more active time for string quartets than now," he continues. "In this generation there are about 22 quartets that started in the Eighties, and we are pretty much in touch with each other. So this is a very good time for chamber music after all."
Cuarteto Latinoamericano. 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 20, the Houston Fine Arts Center, 7111 Montview Boulevard, $15. The group is also making a series of appearances at area schools beginning on Monday, November 18; call 388-9839 for more information.