ORBÓN: Three Symphonic Versions. Symphonic Dances. Concerto Grosso

ORBÓN Three Symphonic Versions. Symphonic Dances. Concerto Grosso • Maximiano Valdés, cond; Asturias SO • NAXOS 8.557368 (66:17)

Julián Orbón was born in Asturias, Spain, in 1925. His mother died while he was a boy, so Julián and his father—also a composer—settled in Cuba in 1940. Aside from a period of study with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood in 1945, he remained there throughout his early adulthood, becoming one of the most important creative artists in pre-Castro Cuba. Although he worked actively for the overthrow of the totalitarian government, he was soon disillusioned by the Castro regime, and escaped to Mexico in 1960. He finally moved to New York in 1963, and died in Miami, Florida, in 1991, at the age of 66.

According to the program notes by Ramón García-Avello, Orbón’s music falls into three style periods. The three pieces on this release—all dating from the 1950s—belong to the second of these, and comprise much of Orbón’s best-known work. This period is said to reflect the strong influence of Copland, and this is apparent through the CD. But don’t get the idea that it’s all more or less afterthoughts on El Salón México. Orbón’s music has considerable expressive range and depth, along with tremendous listener appeal. The overall sound might be described as combining the transparent textures and triadic and diatonic simplicity of, say, 1940s Copland with the vaguely ethnic modal lyricism of Orbón’s Portuguese contemporary Joly Braga Santos. 

The earliest of the three works presented here is perhaps Orbón’s best known: the oddly titled Three Symphonic Versions (perhaps it makes more sense in Spanish). This is an extraordinarily likable piece, the first two (“Pavana,” “Conductos”) of whose three movements feature the sort of romantic/archaic fusions that are so successful in pieces by Vaughan Williams, Respighi, Rosner, and others. The third movement (“Xylophone”) is the exciting, highly percussive, perpetual-motion sort of piece one associates with Latin-American composers like Ginastera (in his earlier pieces). 

Orbón’s Symphonic Dances followed a few years later. Interestingly, this piece had its premiere in Florida, under the direction of Villa-Lobos(!) It is much more overtly Hispanic in effect, with many of the coloristic devices generally associated with that genre. Another notable observation: the final movement is based on the same rhythmic pattern as “America” from West Side Story.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the three works is the Concerto Grosso for string quartet and orchestra, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation. Two warmly exuberant outer movements flank a strikingly beautiful, hymnlike slow movement, the total lasting a little less than half an hour. This work reveals the unmistakable influence of Bohuslav Martinu in addition to that of Copland—and I’m not simply thinking of the Czech’s lifelong attachment to the concertato principle: the melodies have much the same delightfully—almost ecstatically—lilting quality. 

Although at least two of these pieces have been recorded before on Hispanic miscellanies, I believe that this is the only current recording devoted exclusively to the music of Orbón. I must admit to something of a bias against the predictable clichés of Hispanic music, but Orbón successfully overcame any resistance I might have had. The performances, by the resident orchestra of his native city, conducted by the Chilean-born, Italian-trained Maximiano Valdés, are perfectly adequate, and constitute a fine introduction to this rewarding composer’s work.