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CD Review: Gianluca Littera
Heitor Villa-Lobos Harmonica Concerto

Gianluca Littera, harmonica
Catrin Mair Williams, harp
Radovan Cavallin, clarinet
Orquesta Filarmonica de Gran Canaria
Adrian Leaper, conductor


Alberto Ginastera: Harp Concerto, Op. 25
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Harmonica Concerto
Aaron Copland: Clarinet Concerto

total time: 61:00
released: 1998
review date: November 1999

label: Arte Nova Classics (74321 56356 2)
Distributed by BMG Entertainment

Review by Henry Doktorski :

In my opinion, this CD is especially significant. It is not produced by a label which specializes in free-reed instruments; it is produced by a commercial classical label, and the harmonica appears on this CD along with such traditional classical instruments as the harp and clarinet. I will not write about the harp and clarinet concertos, despite their interesting composition and beautiful performance, but I will instead focus on the harmonica concerto, as this column is dedicated to the free-reed instruments.

Gianluca Littera (born in Rome in 1962) began his harmonica studies both in jazz and classical music at the age of ten. He also studied viola at the Giocchino Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro and played with the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale in Bologna for eight years. He has been a member of the Orquesta Filarmonica de Gran Canario since 1992. Presently he directs the ensemble, Tango 7, which combines jazz, popular and contemporary music.

First of all, I would like to congratulate Mr. Littera on his mastery of two completely unrelated instruments: the viola and harmonica. I personally think it is important for most classical free-reed performers to be fully proficient on more than one instrument. This certainly helps one to be more fully employed. Let's face it, for the most part, there is simply not much financial remuneration for classical free-reed performers. Very few of us can make a living simply by performing a free-reed instrument.

Although I have performed accordion in concert with symphony orchestras, I make most of my living as a church organist and choir master. Peter Soave, the great American bayanist, has recently added the bandoneon to his repertoire to increase his performance prospects. Kathyrn Matasy, who played accordion on the recording of David del Tredici's Alice Symphony, is actually a clarinetist with several Massachusetts' orchestras. In the 1920s, Mario Perry was one of the violinists in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, but he frequently doubled on accordion. Even Claudio Vena, the original accordionist with the great Toronto quartet, Quartetto Gelato, mostly played viola with the group. Without a doubt, in the classical music scene, it pays for a free-reed player to double on another instrument.

Similarly, it seems that Mr. Littera, a violist with the Orquesta Filarmonica de Gran Canario, convinced the conductor of that orchestra to program, and later record, the Villa-Lobos harmonica concerto. It is worthy to mention that the other soloists on this recording, clarinetist Radovan Cavallin and harpist Catrin Mair Williams, are also members of that orchestra.

The harmonica concerto by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was composed in 1955; the piece -- nearly twenty minutes in length -- is in three movements, Allegro moderato, Andante and Allegro. This piece is always a pleasure for me to hear, and Mr. Littera's performance was no exception.

I enjoyed his relaxed, unhurried tempi; each note was clear as a bell. Although I listened carefully to this recording with headphones, I could not detect any sloppiness or carelessness. Truly Mr. Littera is a wonderful performer; his technique was impeccable and his musicianship sensitive.

I appreciated the balance between the orchestra and harmonica; both were crystal clear and in perfect harmony. One of my favorite moments in the concerto is the lively bassoon and harmonica duet (with muted strings) in the third movement. Villa-Lobos harmonies, although contemporary, are pleasant to listen to, no dissonant clashes here. Mr. Littera plays the third movement cadenza by Tommy Reilly, his double-stop counterpoint is especially memorable and shows a little of what the chromatic harmonica can do.

At the risk of being redundant, I would like to quote Larry Adler from an interview I conducted with him in 1997 which was published in The Free-Reed Review and titled A Living Legend:

I'll tell you something very funny. Around 1947 I played at the New York City Center. Villa-Lobos heard me and although we hadn't met, he gave a statement to the press saying that the harmonica was the instrument of the future and that he would write a concerto for Larry Adler. So I met him and I showed him the various possibilities and limitations of the mouth organ. Then I waited, and waited and waited, yet nothing appeared. About two years later I heard that he had written a concerto for the mouth organ and given it to another mouth organ player: John Sebastian!

So I was in Paris, and Villa-Lobos was in Paris also, so I called him up and he invited me to lunch. I said, "Heitor, didn't you promise to write a concerto for me?" He replied, "Yes! I wanted to write it, I was waiting!" I said, "Waiting? Waiting for what?" His smile illuminated the Champs Elysees and he replied, "the money!"

I recommend this CD for all classical music lovers.

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