An Interview with David Korenchendler
David Korenchendler is one of the most compelling voices among contemporary Brazilian composers. He has won numerous awards for his work, and is also heard in concert as a pianist. Noted works include the Symphony no. 3 “Psalmi-Tehillim,” with text in Latin and Hebrew, written for the visit of Pope John Paul II (recorded on the RioArte label, RD 018), six piano sonatas, and several sets of variations for piano, including one on “Happy Birthday,” as well known in Brazil as it is in the United States. He has been professor at the Villa-Lobos Institute of UniRio, located a short walk from Sugarloaf mountain, an icon of the city of Rio de Janeiro, since 1977. We talked in March 2001 at the University.
TM: You seem to have a particular bent for choral music.
DK: I write for many different combinations. If a composer uses traditional acoustic resources (electro-acoustic music is not my way of expressing myself), then writing for chorus is a part of this. I sang in choruses a great deal, and conducted children’s choirs. My best production for choirs is for children’s choirs. I’m very interested in repertoire for children. When I direct a choir, it helps me hear what the possibilities for it are.
TM: What children’s choirs are there in Brazil?
DK: There is a very famous choir in Petrópolis, the Canarinhos de Petrópolis (the Little Canaries of Petrópolis), and in Rio de Janeiro the Curumins (now under a different name). The public schools have a lot of activity in the area of children’s choirs. Unfortunately there is often not much support. Sometimes there is even little support from the school at one point I rehearsed a choir under a mango tree. Schools see these choirs as a way of participating in civic ceremonies; the choir is not a musical end in itself.
TM: Please say a little about your musical training.
DK: All of my musical studies were in Brazil. Henrique Morelenbaum was the focus for theory and composition, with other teachers as well. I studied privately from age seven to age seventeen, and then entered the Escola National de Música. I already had had my training by the time I entered, but I needed the diploma.
TM: Was the musical background of your family important?
DK: My father, Mojzesz Icchok Korenchendler, was a designer of embroidery patterns; he also worked in scene design. Both of my parents were from Poland. My father lost his whole family in the war, his wife and children. My mother was also widowed during the war. The family name is very uncommon — it means “grain dealer.” My Jewish identity has always had a big influence on my music. I have a double identity, being both Brazilian and Jewish. My Jewish language is reflected in my musical language.
TM: It’s worth noting here that you have also written music for the mass.
DK: Three masses. Schubert wrote synagogue music, Bernstein wrote masses. (NB: Korenchendler was commissioned to write music to mark the visit of Pope John Paul II to Brazil).
TM: How long have you been at UniRio (the University of Rio de Janeiro, with the music program on the campus in Urca, near Sugarloaf mountain)?
DK: Since 1977.
TM: What do you teach there?
DK: Counterpoint, fugue, composition, instrumentation, orchestration.
TM: Tell us a little about your promising students.
DK: Recently there have been Rodrigo Cichelli (who also studied with Guerra-Peixe), Daniel Rousseau, Marcio Conrad, and Sergio Roberto de Oliveira. Rodrigo, Marcio and Sergio have all won prizes in composition.
TM: Brasilidade (Brazilian-ness) is still an important quality for many contemporary Brazilian composers. It seems to be less evident in your music.
DK: It appears sometimes, but I don’t write in the national line. I never wanted to be part of a group. One of my older pieces is a set of variations on the national anthem, written in very traditional, nineteenth-century language, for string quartet, commissioned by the German government in 1985 for a ceremony. I think that I am the only Brazilian who has worked seriously with the national anthem.
TM: Tell us about your forthcoming projects.
DK: There is a micro-opera, of about thirty to forty minutes coming up, but the text can’t be revealed.
TM: Are your pieces being performed outside Brazil?
DK: There have been performances in Germany, the U.S., Spain, Sweden, Japan and Israel.
TM: The many emigres from Europe had a profound effect on the arts in the U.S. after World War II. Was the same true for Brazil?
DK:Yes, and not only in music, but also in literature, medicine, architecture, engineering. The Jewish presence was very important during the war and after, though it gradually began to be diluted. In the 1950’s all the doctors were Jewish. Jews studied hard because they could carry their learning with them. Jewish immigration was mostly to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Henrique Morelenbaum is also Jewish. His father was from near Warsaw.
TM: You took part in the series at the Centro Cultural Banco de Brasil in 2000 marking the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Brazil (note: Palavras Brasileiras, a series of works based on important texts in Brazilian history).
DK: This was a operetta based on events before the discovery. The second act draws from the letter on Pero Vaz de Caminha (a historical document describing the discovery and known by every student). It’s called Pero Vaz de Caminha, or PVC, before and after, and takes a humorous point of view.