Drumming from Guatemala: Jorge Sarmientos’s Concerto for Five Timpani

March 11, 2013 9:21 am in Endorser & Company News by Web Team

by Dr. Pablo Emanuel Bagilet

It was back in 1997, while studying timpani in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that I had my first contact with Jorge Samientos’s Concerto for Five Timpani and Orchestra. This compeling masterpiece captured my attention since the very beginning. Its demanding technique, exotic harmonies, Hipanic background, and enigmatic melodies were only some of the elements of this work that kept my interest thriving through the years until finally committed to conduct further study.

During the Fall of 2009, I have conducted three phone interviews with Maestro Jorge Sarmientos and one with Fred Begun, the timpanist that premiered Sarmientos’s Concerto for Five Timpani and Orchestra. During my first interview with Sarmientos, he revealed that this work was commissioned by Colombian conductor Guillermo Espinosa, responsible for musical affairs at the OAS (Organization of American States). Espinosa was also a member of the Commissions Committee of the Inter-American Music Festivals, a series of concerts that ran from 1958 to 1981 to promote music of the Americas. This Pan- American project saw the premiere of many important works, including Alberto Ginastera’s String Quartet no. 2.i

Jorge Sarmientos was born on 19 February 1931 in San Antonio Suchitepéquez, Guatemala. His father taught him to play marimba at an early age. He studied alto saxophone, clarinet, and piano as well as folk and jazz styles before entering the Guatemalan National Conservatory of Music.ii After graduation, he obtained scholarships to study composition overseas in Paris (1955-6), and in Buenos Aires, with Alberto Ginastera at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (1965-6).iii For several years, he was the principal timpanist of the Guatemalan Symphony, a position he vacated in 1972 to become the artistic director of the Orchestra.iv Although he studied abroad and appeared with several orchestras around the world, both as a guest conductor and composer in residence, he lived most of his life in Guatemala in Jardines de Santiago Sacatepequez, a small colonial city a few miles away for Guatemala City.v In 1961, Sarmientos received La Orden del Quetzal, the highest honor given by the Guatemalan Government. The Orden del Quetzal was established in 1936 by the Guatemalan President Jorge Ubirco (1878-1946), to recognize the achievements of Guatemalan citizens in artistic, literary, scientific, or humanitarian fields.vi The year that Sarmientos was recognized with such honor the country was immersed in a tense political environment. General Manuel Arana Osorio (1918-2003), nicknamed “the Jackal of the East,” was head of state of Guatemala from 1970 to 1974. During his dictatorship, Osorio leaded an anti-guerrilla campaign and prosecuted who opposed to his regime.vii In 1962, the same year Sarmientos wrote his Concerto for Five Timpani and Orchestra, Sarmientos decided to return the medal Orden del Quetzal due to his opposition to the government procedures: three university law students were murdered during a protest against the regime. Consequently, Sarmientos suffered persecution from the Guatemalan government, and went to prison twice during the presidency of Osorio. Sarmientos recalled: “I was very lucky to escape death, like I did…those were very difficult times.”viii

In 1962, Espinosa was one of the guest conductors of the Guatemalan National Symphony Orchestra. By that time, Sarmientos was an internationally respected composer due to the success of his Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra written in 1957. Espinosa, who already knew about Sarmientos’s work, commissioned a Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra to be premiered at the Third Inter- American Music Festival. “It was just like that,” said Sarmientos. Although Guillermo Espinosa commissioned the concerto, Isidoro Zarco (1912-1970), president of the Guatemalan Newspaper Prensa Libre and friend of Sarmientos, financed the piece.ix Sarmientos commented that Espinosa did not provide him with any preferences on instrumentation or the length of the composition. Consequently, Sarmientos decided to write a twelve-minute concerto for five timpani.x Sarmientos took a few months to write the concerto, which was published by Peer International in 1965.xi In 1979, Sarmientos wrote a handwritten piano reduction of this concerto. This score was published by Marimba Publications Inc in 2010.xii

The concerto was premiere May 7th of 1965 at the Third Inter-American Music Festival in Washington D.C, organized by the Pan- American Union and the state department. The US National Symphony Orchestra was in charge to premiere this concerto under the musical direction of Maestro Howard Michell (who also was member of the Commissions Committee of the Festival), with Fred Begun as the timpani soloist.xiii An unedited recording of this performance can be found at the Library of Congress (LC Control No: 2006655701).

Begun was the principal timpanist of the US National Symphony from 1951 to 1999 and premiered several timpani concertos including the Concertante for Timpani and Chamber Orchestra by Blas Atehortua and the Concerto for Five Kettledrums and Orchestra by Robert Parris.xiv In an interview with Begun he offered his personal recollections about the Sarmientos’s concerto and its premiere. Begun recalls that he received the music for this concerto a few days before the premiere and that he only had a few rehearsals prior to the performance. He also mentioned that due to the large number of pieces the orchestra needed to rehearse for the festival, the rehearsal time spent for a piece of this caliber was minimal. However, the premiere was very well performed and it was acclaimed by the public. xv From the performance aspect, Begun expressed that one of the most challenging aspects of Sarmientos’s concerto is the fast tuning changes. He even mentions that some of them are almost impossible to achieve due to the lack of time between passages.xvi

As a general analysis, this concerto is tonal and in three movements: Moderato, Danza, and Allegro Moderato. The first movement is in DM and the third in Bm. The innovation comes with the second movement, which is only for percussion instruments.xvii Although themes and short melodic phrases come back along the piece, the concerto doesn’t present any prescribed musical form.

Sarmientos mentioned that, since his beginning as a composer, he associated his music with Guatemala. For instance, two movements of his Suite for Violin and Piano, Baile en el Campo and Canto a Las Tumbas, as well as in his first symphonic work Estampas Kaqchikeles refer to the members of a millenary Guatemalan tribe.xviii In addition, Sarmientos’s works invokes Western and Hispanic elements. “I don’t write folkloric music,”xix said Sarmientos; “I write music using several European traditional genres such as concertos, chamber music, ballets, and symphonic poems. Based on these genres, I may include elements that recall the Guatemalan and Mayan culture.xx For example, his ballet Tres Estampas del Popol Vuh is based on “an epic describing the cosmogony, mythology, and history of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala.”xxi Another example of Sarmientos’s reference to his roots is the Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra, which features the Guatemalan national instrument, the marimba, and Guatemalan folkloric rhythms. Sarmientos’s Timpani Concerto reflects the idea of Pan Americanism, retaining a “hint of national character balanced with those elements considered universal.”xxii

The Mayas occupied the Guatemalan highlands, the Yucatan peninsula, the eastern territory of Mexico, Tabasco, and the eastern areas of the Mexican states of Chiapas.xxiii There is not much information about how the music of the Mayas sounded like. Mayan music, as well as other records of other Mayan cultural expressions such as literature and religion, has been lost over the time or destroyed during the colonization. However, several elements from Mayan culture founded at excavations such as manuscripts, paintings, instruments, and sculptures illustrate this culture’s advocacy for musical practice and dance. According to research conducted by the Popol Vuh Museum of the University of Marroquín, Guatemala, Mayas constructed a wide variety of wind and percussion instruments.xxiv In his Concerto for Five Timpani, Sarmientos uses percussion and wind instruments to represent the Mayan and its culture. The melodies and rhythms of this concerto are all product of Sarmiento’s imagination and creativity. Sarmientos’s melodic material reflects the way that he believes Mayan music sounded like. He also gives most of those melodic lines to the flute.xxv

Maestro Jorge Sarmientos passed away on September 26, 2012. Sarmientos was a successful composer, teacher, and conductor. He was also a simple human being, thankful to life and a deep love for his country and its people. He traveled around the world sharing his music with others. In his Concerto for Timpani, Sarmientos has been able to convey different music worlds. He brought together music from the past and present using musical elements of his own tradition such as the Mayan melodies and instruments into the frame of a concerto. Sarmientos has also challenged the modern timpanist from the technical standpoint and innovated by writing percussion chamber music within one of the movements.

Dr. Pablo Emanuel Bagilet (1978) was born in Santa Fe, Argentina. He began his musical studies in percussion at Escuela de Música 9901 in Argentina earning a Certificate in Music Education in 1997. For three years, Pablo participated in an orchestral percussion training program with the Orquesta Académica del Teatro Colón (Buenos Aires, Argentina). Pablo pursued further studies in the USA, receiving his Bachelor and Master Degrees in Percussion Performance from the University of Georgia under the guidance of Dr. Thomas McCutchen and his doctoral degree at Michigan State University under the guidance of Prof. Gwendolyn Burgett. As an orchestral percussionist/timpanist, Dr. Bagilet has held core positions for several orchestras including Orquesta de Cámara de la Universidad Nacional del Litoral (Argentina), Orquesta Sinfónica de Santa Fe (Argentina), Principal Percussionist of Midland Symphony Orchestra (USA), and Visiting Principal Timpanist of Wuhan Philharmonic (China). Dr. Bagilet was freelance musician with Filarmónica de Buenos Aires (Argentina), Banda Municipal de Santa Fe (Argentina), Sinfónica de Rosario (Argentina), Lansing Symphony (Michigan), Jackson Symphony (Michigan), West Shore Symphony (Michigan), Augusta Symphony (Georgia), and Southern Great Lakes Symphony (Michigan). Also, he was TA for the Percussion Departments of The University of Georgia and Michigan State University. Dr. Bagilet was Adjunct Professor of Percussion at Emmanuel College (Georgia), Hillsdale College (Michigan), Saginaw Valley State University (Michigan), and Albion College (Michigan). An artist of international experience, Dr. Bagilet has been featured with orchestras and ensembles and has presented solo recitals in South America, Europe, Asia, and the US. As a composer, Dr. Bagilet has constantly contributed to the vibraphone repertoire with his original works and arrangements. For instance, three of his compositions for solo Vibraphone (Baires, Argentinean Suite, and Lucia) have been published by Bachovich Publishing Company. Currently, Dr. Bagilet is Principal Timpanist of Orquesta Sinfónica de Entre Ríos, and Professor of Percussion at the Instituto Superior de Música de la Universidad Nacional del Litoral (Argentina). Since 2012, Dr. Bagilet is part of the Education Team/Artist of the Vic Firth Company. Pablo and his wife, Carolina, live in Santa Fe, Argentina with their daughter, Lucia.


End Notes

i Alyson Payne, “Creating Music of the Americas During the Cold War: Alberto Ginastera and the Inter-American Music Festivals,” Music Research Forum 22 (2007): 69; Interview, author with Jorge Sarmientos, 2 September 2009.
ii Interview, author with Jorge Sarmientos, 2 September 2009.
iii Dieter Lehnhoff, “Sarmientos, Jorge Albaro,” New Grove online <accessed 21 September 2009>.
iv Interview, author with Jorge Sarmientos, 2 September 2009.
v Ibid.
vi Gema Palencia. “Orden del Quetzal, a manos llenas.” (Accessed 21 October 2009) <http://www.prensalibre.com.gt/pl/2004/septiembre/26/98234.html>
vii Colin Harding. “General Carlos Arana Osorio: First of a series of ruthless military presidents of Guatemala” (Accessed 12 December 2009) <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries /general-carlos-arana-osorio-549053.html>
viii Interview, author with Jorge Sarmientos, 16 September 2009, East Lansing, Michigan.
ix Ibid.
x Ibid.
xi Ibid.
xii Jonathan Latta, “An Interview with Fred Begun on the Sarmientos Timpani Concerto,” Percussive Notes 47, no. 4 (2009), 60.
xiii Interview, author with Fred Begun. 7 October 2009. East Lansing, Michigan.
xiv Ibid.
xv Interview, author with Fred Begun. 7 October 2009.
xvi Jonathan Latta, “An Interview with Fred Begun on the Sarmientos Timpani Concerto,”60. xvii Interview, author with Jorge Sarmientos, 2 September 2009.
xviii Lucia Herrera, “Mi estimulo es Guatemala,” (Accessed 13 September 2009) <http://www.prensalibre.com/pl/2009/septiembre/01/338623.html>
xix Interview, author with Jorge Sarmientos, 9 October 2009.
xx Interview, author with Jorge Sarmientos, 2 September 2009.
xxi The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, “Popol Vuh” (accessed 22 November 2009) <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Popol Vuh.>
xxii Alyson Payne, “Creating Music of the Americas During the Cold War,”63.
xxiii Linda O’Brien-Rothe, “Guatemala,” New Grove online <accessed 17October 2009>.
xxiv Julio Taracena Bethancourth, “La Música Indígena Guatemalteca Una Herencia Ancestral,” (Accessed 10 October 2009) <http:fr.calameo.com/books>
xxv Interview, author with Jorge Sarmientos, 9 October 2009.