Cello, instrumental students combine divergent styles in ‘Bachianas Brasileiras’ performance

Johann Sebastian Bach, Brazilian folk and pop music — not the combination one would think of for a series of cello ensemble suites. However, in the 1930s and ’40s, composer  Heitor Villa-Lobos fused the three distinct styles together to create nine suites, together known as the Bachianas Brasileiras.

Cello students in the School of Music’s Instrumental Program will perform two of the suites — Nos. 1 and 5 — in a student recital at 4 p.m. today in McKnight Hall. The first half of the recital will feature cello students, while the second half will feature the rest of the Instrumental Program.

Arie Lipsky, a faculty member in the Instrumental Program, addressed the strange combination of styles used in the suites. He said that Villa-Lobos, who was Brazilian, was heavily influenced by Bach, which translated into his idea of melding Bach’s work with the music of his homeland.

“You ask yourself, ‘What do Brazilian music and Bach have in common?’ ” Lipsky said. “And the answer is — nothing. However, [Villa-Lobos] was able to take some elements of Bach music, like a flute and the harmonies and the counterpoint, and make an unusual marriage of Brazilian rhythms and harmonies. And the culmination is quite stunning.”

Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 is written for cello ensemble and a singer. Soprano Ashley Alden will join the ensemble for the suite.

“The sound of the cello ensemble is very orchestral; it’s just absolutely gorgeous,” Lipsky said. “On one hand, you have the low voice of the cello … and on the other side, you have the soprano side of the cello, which is very spiritual.”

Villa-Lobos’ combination of styles is an unusual one, but one story provides a little context. He once encountered a group of cannibals while in the Amazon jungle. Once he realized the cannibals were out to get him, the story goes, he pulled out his cello and began playing. Because the music he played was so beautiful, the cannibals were convinced that he was a god and they quickly ran away. His music saved his life.

“We don’t have anybody to corroborate that story,” Lipsky said. “But I think it’s a nice story, whether you believe it or not.”