Friday 31 January 2020

Itaipú: celebration of a technological marvel or requiem for an environmental disaster?

Guaíra Falls which were submerged by the Itaipú dam in 1982
Guaíra Falls which were submerged by the Itaipú dam in 1982
Philip Glass' symphonic cantata Itaipú celebrates a technological marvel, the world's largest hydro-electric dam on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. Commissioned for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus it was premiered in by them in 1989. Whilst Glass' music is a vivid portrayal of the river’s journey, through the dam’s gigantic turbines and out towards the sea, the text is based on the traditional creation myth of the Guarani (and sung in Guarani), but for the listener there is another more disturbing layer to the work. Whilst the dam was a technological marvel, it was an environmental disaster.

Around 10,000 families were displaced by construction, and the work went ahead without proper public consultation. The resulting reservoir completely covered one of the world's largest waterfalls, the Guaíra Falls, and the Brazilian government liquidated  Guaíra Falls National Park. Subsequently, the rock face of the falls was dynamited which means that they could never be restored. And the whole eco-system has been damaged as two very different ecoregions (originally separated by the falls) are now linked.

Glass's Itaipú is being performed by the Crouch End Festival Chorus and London Orchestra da Camera, conductor David Temple, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 2 February 2020, which gives us a chance to experience this powerful music and decide whether it should be a celebration or a requiem.

Also in the programme is Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and his Babel from 1944, a rarely-performed work which was part of the Genesis Suite, a collaborative work for narrator and orchestra with movements by Arnold Schoenberg, Nathaniel Shilkret, Alexander Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ernst Toch and Igor Stravinsky.

Itaipú dam
Itaipú dam
Full details from the Southbank Centre's website.

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