String Base : Mexican quartet, ensemble-in-residency, will open Chamber Music Festival.


One of the clear highlights of the increasingly impressive Ventura Chamber Music Festival, which opens tonight with a gala and continues for 11 days, is its focus on music both exotic and close to home.

Namely, it’s the season of Cuarteto Latinoamericano, who will be settling in as the festival’s first ensemble-in-residency. In addition to a concert on Friday and another May 5 will be a May 9 premiere of “Clocks,” a new piece by Ventura County’s own Miguel del Aguila.

The internationally respected string quartet, which champions Latin American music as well as staples of the repertoire, hails from Mexico City, that cosmopolitan center to the south that never seems to get its cultural due. But the signs of redress are encouraging.


Two years ago, the UCSB New Music Festival featured the music of Mexican composers, and Chanticleer is sweeping through Southern California this week with a program of Mexican baroque, sophisticated Mexico City-based music from the 18th century, rediscovered and polished up.

And the Cuarteto Latinoamericano is doing more than its share to sharpen focus on Mexico’s gifts as a literal crossroad between the Americas.

Over the last decade, the group has confirmed its place in the pantheon of important string quartets throughout the world, and without losing sight of its roots.

The quartet formed officially in 1981 when the three Bitran brothers, violinists Saul and Aron, and cellist Alvaro, joined by violist Javier Montiel, continued on the path started by their father, an amateur violist. Two years later, they had earned Mexico’s coveted National Music Critic’s Assn. award. Something was clearly clicking.

In the early days, they traveled to Cologne, where the Amadeus Quartet taught every summer, to become steeped in the quartet standards, the world of Mozart, Haydn and Brahms.

“It was only later,” recalled Saul Bitran, first violinist and spokesman for the group, “when we started playing more and more outside of Mexico that we realized the wealth of repertoire we have in Latin America and we began to focus more on that music.”

These days, the musicians have dispersed and have set roots in Mexico, where they teach and perform regularly, Pittsburgh, where they have held annual residencies at Carnegie Mellon University for the last decade, and Boca Raton, Fla., where Saul now lives. But, as their reputation continues to heat up, the road is, increasingly, their home.

Without a doubt, the new visibility of string quartets on the music scene has been a residual effect of the popularity of the Kronos Quartet, whom Bitran said “we are indebted to. They started to destroy the myth that the string quartet is an old-fashioned, stodgy music, which is very much prevalent in the world. We are following in their footsteps, in a way, breaking through to audiences which never before would have come to string quartet concerts.”

Ironically, they sometimes get new audiences by virtue of name-brand confusion.

As a group name, Cuarteto Latinoamericano is just vague enough to pique interest and raise questions.

“People don’t automatically associate our name with a string quartet. They can’t figure out what we are, which can be in our favor sometimes. People have, in an extreme case, expected us to be folk musicians from Bolivia.”

Like the Kronos, Cuarteto Latinoamericano makes a habit of encouraging composers to contribute new pieces to its ever-expanding repertoire. In Ventura, the group has the built-in advantage of playing a much-anticipated new work by del Aguila, an old friend--of a sort.

“The funny thing is that we don’t know each other firsthand,” Bitran explained.

“We have been in touch for many years, we have played his music all over the place and just recorded a piece of his,” referring to del Aguila’s “Presto #2,” on the quartet’s new recording for New Albion. “This will be a good opportunity to not only finally meet him but to play his new quintet, with him.”

The quartet has been practicing “Clocks” in anticipation of the festival, and Bitran reported that “It’s a very original piece, with a lot of humor in it. There’s a lot of almost visual imagery in it. The idea of time travel also enters into it, because it relates to different periods of history in different movements in the piece.

“It’s about the passage of time through the use of different clocks in the history of humanity. You hear references to different techniques, using clocks through history, from the ancient sundial to digital clocks. You hear noises that remind you of that.”

The ensemble’s new recording, “Four, for Tango” (New Albion Records), is one of the most evocative entries yet in its growing discography, focusing as it does on young Latin American composers alongside music by an acknowledged master like the late Neuvo Tango musician Astor Piazzolla or noted jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera.

Bitran explained that “the idea was to present what we believe is happening in Latin America, as opposed to 10 years ago. We feel that composers are turning back to themselves, to folk music, or local culture.

“I’m generalizing, but I feel that during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Latino composers were trying to be as international as possible, to try to compete with the rest of the world. They didn’t want to sound Latin American. There was even a little bit of shame in showing roots, coming from the ‘third world.’

“But nowadays, we feel we have less of that conflict. Latin America has become a very important factor in the international arena, not only in the arts, but in science and politics. It seems like composers are no longer ashamed. On the contrary, they have discovered that they have an incredibly rich source of inspiration and materials which other countries’ composers don’t have.”


“Musical Mosaic,” with Cuarteto Latinoamericano, at 8 p.m. Friday, San Buenaventura Mission, 211 E. Main St., Ventura. $32.

“Rising Stars,” with Cuarteto Latinoamericano at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Church of Religious Science, 101 S. Laurel St., Ventura. The quartet premieres and critiques new compositions by aspiring professionals from USC. Free.

“Quintessential Quintet,” with Cuarteto Latinoamericano and soloist Miguel del Aguila (performing the world premiere of del Aguila’s “Clock”), at 10 a.m. May 9, Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli St., Ventura. $24.