The New York Times
"Immediately striking...bright, freewheeling and sophisticated."
The Boston Globe
"Marvelously alive to the worlds of colors and glints and shimmers that instruments in combination are waiting to have loosed from them."
The L.A. Times
"Crickets and frogs in the night jungle, a slithering 12-tone snake and a shamanic healer are conjured up. …what makes Desenne's music haunting is the composer's continual off-kilter turns of phrase. You think you know what to expect, the landscape is familiar, but there is always something a little spooky lurking around the corner."
Steeped in Baroque and Renaissance music, fusing influences from the most elaborate musical forms of South America to Frank Zappa, Esquivel or urban Venezuelan avant-garde, Paul Desenne’s compositions are a perfect complement to the thrilling new style of classical performance ushered in by the Venezuelan orchestral movement, marrying the highest levels of tradition and academic knowledge with the pulsating, street-wise energy of an intensely musical culture.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela to a French father and American mother, Desenne was playing his own creations with his ensemble in Caracas at age 14, and later became a founding member of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. He studied cello and composition at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris and went on to join the Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. Performing and composing in Caracas as Venezuela’s lauded El Sistema movement was in its first decade, he became head of the strings department at the Conservatory in the 1990s, toured extensively as solo cellist, and eventually became El Sistema’s resident composer.
Spanning works for orchestra and choir to solo and chamber pieces, Desenne’s compositions are performed around the world. Sinfonia Burocràtica ed'Amazzònica (2004), performed to great acclaim in 2014 by Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, stages the landing point of European minds on South American beaches as bureaucratic structures melt into a jungle of frogs and crickets, anacondas and shamanic healers. The sumptuous Two Seasons (of the Caribbean Tropics) (2003), an homage to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, features Latin and Caribbean rhythms, Baroque developments and a humoresque transfiguration of famous Vivaldian fragments.
2015’s symphonic poem The Life of Benjamin: A Monkey Symphony, commissioned by artist Allen Hirsch, reconstructs the true adventures of a capuchin monkey brought from Venezuela to New York City, exchanging one jungle ambience for another as syncopated car-horn jazz replaces the leisurely swinging from vine to vine replicated by winds and strings. Gran Cacerolazo (2010) for piano, strings and percussion explores the clamorous street protests that are daily fare in Venezuela, where people bang on pots and pans or shout slogans on both sides of the political divide. In Jaguar Songs for Solo Cello (2002), the cello escapes from its weeping lyrical tradition into gypsy Venezuelan and Andalusian improvisations, a chainsaw contemplation of forest destruction, a raging electric rock-gavotte and a Brazilian berimbau, descending into a noisy, scraping, screaming flight through a Latin American night.
Dividing his time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and an off-the-grid adobe wonder in the wild mountain forests outside Caracas, Paul Desenne’s tricultural, trilingual world view results in a musical hybridization that blends anthropological precision and intellectual abstraction with listening as fun, as passion, as a dance. His lush, quirky and irresistibly rhythmic output reflects his insatiable curiosity, subversive humor and wide-open mind.
Performers of his works include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Alabama Symphony Orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the Miami Symphony Orchestra, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, the Orquesta Juvenil de Caracas, Kremerata Baltica, Orchestre de Chambre de Toulouse, I Musici de Montréal, the Nederlands Blasers Ensemble, the New Juilliard Ensemble, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Bogotá Philharmonic, the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, Boston Classical Orchestra, Ensemble Continuum, Camerata Criolla de Caracas, Camerata de las Américas of Mexico, members of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, Mallarmé Chamber Players, Ensamble Gurrufío of Venezuela, Ensamble Onix of Mexico, the Fodor Quintet, the Verdehr Trio, pianist Gabriela Montero, clarinetists Paquito d’Rivera and Jorge Montilla; flutists Luis Julio Toro, Marco Granados, Javier Montilla, Jacques Zoon, among many others; violinists Virginie Robilliard, Miranda Cuckson, Colin Sorgi, Alexis Cárdenas, Jennifer Curtis; violist Nicholas Mann; cellists Nick Mariscal, David Louwerse, among others.
Conductors include Gustavo Dudamel, Gilles Colliard, Carlos Izcaray, Diego Matheuz, César Ivan Lara, Christian Vasquez, Tania Léon, Olivier Grangean, Raphael Jiménez Joel Sachs, Carmen Téllez, Alondra de la Parra, Yuli Turovsky, Eduardo Marturet, Manuel Hernandez, Alfredo Rugeles, Michael Christie, George Stelluto, Daniel Andai...
Desenne has received composition grants from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University (2010), the Guggenheim Foundation (2009), Fundacion Cisneros (2006, 2001, 2000), Civitella Ranieri (2006), El Sistema, Caracas (2004, 2000), CONAC/Venezuelan Ministry of Culture (2002, 1993), Fundacion Banco Mercantil, Caracas (1998), Fundacion Beracasa, Caracas (1998), Meet the Composer, New York (1995), and INCIBA/Venezuelan Institute for Culture and the Arts (1974-76).
Desenne has been a weekly music columnist for Venezuela’s national newspaper El Nacional. He has published satirical essays in Colombia's renowned arts magazine Revista Número, and in 2002-04, he created a weekly political satire for radio that aired in Caracas. In 2009, he was named Best Actor by San Francisco's Golden Gate Fiction and Documentary Festival for his role in the short film Andante ma non troppo.
Profile © Rosemary Holland
Photo: MD Torres