A musical Christmas mass the entire world can appreciate

‘Misa Criolla’ transcends its religious character and conveys a profound message of peace for all, says Facundo Ramirez, who will direct a performance of his father’s composition in Tel Aviv today.

FACUNDO RAMÍREZ has inherited some of his father’s genes (photo credit: GERARDO LEYSER)
FACUNDO RAMÍREZ has inherited some of his father’s genes
(photo credit: GERARDO LEYSER)
Western classical music is generally – naturally – looked upon as a Western art form. That is not to disrespect the fabulous body of work that has emanated from the US over the last century or so – much of which, it must be said, scored by Americans with European roots – but most of us do not identify the genre with motifs, colors and textures that come from cultures located elsewhere on the globe.
Listening to Misa Criolla, which was recognized by the Vatican as the first mass of the modern era, should scotch the West Eurocentric line of thought in double-quick time. Since it was written just over half a century ago, by Argentinean composer Ariel Ramirez, the work has taken on something close to iconic status – and with good reason.
Ramirez died in 2010, at the age of 88, but his son Facundo clearly inherited some of his father’s genes and was to head two performances of Misa Criolla here this week – at Haifa Auditorium (which took place on Monday), and at Tel Aviv’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium (December 18, 9 p.m.) – as musical director. Ramirez Jr. will also serve as keyboardist, alongside seven other Argentinean musicians playing South American and other instruments, with the Kibbutz Choir under conductor Ronen Borshevsky underpinning the soundscape.
Ramirez feels his father’s timeless work offers multiple layers of reference, and not just musical.
“Strictly musically speaking, I believe that the importance of Misa Criolla lies in the fact that this work takes into account the tradition of Western liturgical music, adding to it the sounds and rhythms which are characteristic for the folkloric tradition of Argentina and parts of South America, while also using for this purpose European instruments such as the harpsichord (in this concert, the grand piano) or the guitar,” he notes. “Another important fact is that this work has transcended its purely religious meaning to become a message of peace for all the people of the world.”
As Misa Criolla is essentially a choral work, I wondered whether Ramirez felt the vocal richness comes across in instrumental versions, too. “Definitively. Many years ago the great [Argentinean-born Israeli] clarinetist Giora Feidman invited me to participate in a tour that brought us to the main cities of Germany, Austria and Hungary. The choir was replaced by a string orchestra. The vocal solo part was filled in by Feidman’s magical clarinet. The remaining instruments were the piano, which I played, together with guitar and percussion. The response of the public towards these interpretations was startling. At the end of the ‘Gloria,’ the people in the venues exploded with ovations. This was remarkable.”
The composer took his craft very seriously, and also delved deeply into numerous genres and subgenres in Argentina, traveling the length and breadth of the country to listen to and capture folk music from different communities.
Ramirez cites seminal Argentinean musicians Atahualpa Yupanqui and Erwin Leuchter as formative influences on his father. “The first encouraged my father to research the autochthonous [roots] music of Northern Argentina and even helped him economically for this purpose. When he met Yupanqui, my father was very familiar with the rhythms of the Parana River provinces and those of the Buenos Aires province, but he did not perform music based on the rhythms of the rest of the country.”
Leuchter brought a different perspective on the sounds of Ramirez’s homeland. “The second person I mentioned was a great German composition professor who emigrated [fled from Nazi Germany] and settled in Buenos Aires, escaping the murderous regime, before the war. With him my father studied the most complex structures of classical traditional music.”
Ramirez Sr.’s passion for hinterland sounds was first fired by a local musician.
“In Santa Fe, the province in which he was born, he met Arturo Shianca, a pianist who performed Southern music,” Ramirez explains.” I believe that this is what woke up his great interest towards the music of popular instrumentalists and singers.”
Ramirez feels that the continuing global popularity of his father’s signature work – in fact, one of several hundred he wrote – is down both to its expansive thematic and sonic base, and its spiritual intent. “It transcends its religious character and conveys a profound message of peace.”
The composer brought Misa Criolla to Israel on a couple of occasions, and there is also an underlying moving Jewish connection to the work.
“My father dedicated this composition to two nuns, Elisabeth and Regina Brückner, from Würzburg, in Germany.” His son notes. “They risked their lives to help prisoners of a German concentration camp by bringing them food every night, through a hole they dug with their hands. My father met these two nuns in person in postwar Germany, and this sense of love and solidarity is expressed in this composition. Another fundamental factor of its success, without any doubt, is the depth, beauty and profound inspiration of its music.”
RAMIREZ SAYS that, for him, it wasn’t so much a matter of intentionally following in his father’s footsteps, rather just going with the genetic flow.
“Sometimes I feel that it is not oneself that chooses a path, but that it is a vocation that ends up choosing one,” he muses. “It seems to be something that one cannot avoid. I grew up in a house that was like a rehearsal hall. This was the atmosphere that surrounded me always. I used to play under the grand piano while my father was rehearsing with Mercedes Sosa.” The latter Argentinean diva’s nephew Claudio Sosa is the vocalist for the two Israeli concerts. “They also talked about music, painting, literature and other things. Therefore my relationship towards music was totally natural, as natural as starting to speak.”
Ramirez Jr. also developed other artistic interests. “In a similar way I became a theater lover and, therefore, an actor. As a child I started devouring all the books with plays as well as those of the great writers of universal literature that I could find in the many bookshelves that were in the living room of our house. Therefore, within this context, one can reach the conclusion that the fact I wished to become an artist is quite logical. But the opposite situations also exist. Artists are born within families that are not at all related to art. Finally, I don’t know how to answer this question... but it is always very interesting to think about these things.”
While he feels Misa Criolla is a good ambassador for his homeland’s music, he says it does not cover all national bases, and is not a faithful reflection of Argentina as a whole. “I am not sure... I don’t think so. This work marks a ‘before and after’ in the history of Argentinean music because it was really an innovation for its time, as it gave the musical folkloric language of Argentina a place it did not have. My country is too complex – in its positive as well as in its negative aspects – for it to be reflected wholly in one single work.”
Be that as it may, Ramirez is more than happy to continue touring the world with his dad’s masterpiece, along with other material from over yonder. “I perform Misa Criolla within the context of a program totally dedicated to Argentinean music, which also includes works of other Argentinean composers. While I am performing the Misa, I feel the same responsibility, the same spirit and the same emotion as while I am performing the works of the other composers included in the concert, and the same pride, of course.”
Then again, a bit of protekzia does manage to get into the repertoire considerations.
“It is true that, in this concert, you will hear more music by Ariel Ramírez than that of other composers,” he confesses. “That is the advantage he has of being my father,” he adds with a laugh.
For tickets and more information: *8780 and https://www.leaan.co.il