Symphonic Bands in Valencia

Roger H. Brown
August 25, 2011
La Primitiva of Llíria, Spain, is the oldest band in the Valencia region.
La Primitiva

It was midnight and the rehearsal of the Buñol symphonic band, nicknamed Los Litros for the copious quantities of beer the members consume, had just gotten underway. The venue was an outdoor amphitheater carved into a steep rock face in this small Spanish town about 20 miles outside of Valencia.

I counted 93 musicians, female and male, much younger than I had imagined—the majority were of high school and college ages—including a contingent of 12 French horns. Rehearsals routinely begin at 11:00 p.m. and often go until 1:00 a.m.

Buñol is a town of somewhere between five and 10 thousand people (I got competing reports) whose economy relies on two paper mills and a cement factory. Despite its relatively small size, the town supports two of the most talented symphonic bands in the Valencia region of Spain, which is home to over 500 of these bands and 40,000 active musicians.

The symphonic band societies go back hundreds of years, and the tradition of competitions among the towns is 125 years old. Los Litros and their rivals, Los Feos (which means "the ugly ones," so named for the band's founder in the late 19th century) have music schools, orchestras, bands, and choruses, and even run bars for their thousands of dues-paying members to gather and socialize.

We had a meeting with the mayor, but politically he may be no match for the presidents of the band societies. The rivalry between the bands is intense, so the presidents of the societies rarely agree—but when they do, they can dictate terms to politicians because a super-majority of voters are members of one band society or the other. The societies even have deceased members whose families continue to pay dues for them out of respect.

My tour guide in this adventure, and to the towns of Cullera and Llíria later in the week, was Greg Fritze, chair of the Composition Department at Berklee. Greg was named a Fulbright Fellow in Valencia in 1997, and has since become an important composer for the band societies. Greg was anticipating the performance of his latest piece, "A Day in Valencia," by one of the strongest bands, La Primitiva of Llíria, whose conductor is a fellow tuba player and whose president is first French horn in the Madrid orchestra. Later in the week, La Primitivas would compete with five other top bands from the region for first prize at the Certamen Internacional de Bandas de Musica.

Of all the amazing things about these bands—their scale; their importance not only musically but socially, politically, and culturally; the strong participation by the vast majority of young people, similar to football in Texas or hockey in Manitoba—one of the most impressive is the fact that the alumni who play professionally in symphonies all over the world schedule vacations around the competitions and return home to represent their towns, teach the younger musicians, and lend their expertise as volunteers.

This is the milieu we enter with our Berklee in Valencia campus. In sharp contrast with the 100-year-old tradition of the symphonic bands, in the heart of the city of Valencia, Spain's third largest, is a colossal, architecturally striking development called the City of Arts and Sciences that houses the futuristic science museum, tennis complex, aquarium, and our home the opera house, designed by famous Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava.

Our program has already begun, with a three-day songwriting workshop featuring Liv Taylor, his niece Sally Taylor, Donna McElroy, Ken Zambello, and well-known Spanish singer-songwriter Soledad Giménez. Around 60 participants from 20 countries initiated our first effort in Valencia.

Soon, we host a similar program in flamenco, led by our newly hired artistic director of Mediterranean music, Javier Limón. And we expect to design and implement a spectrum of offerings similar to those we have in Boston. We have six days of auditions planned in the coming year, hoping to fast-track our initiative to attract more brass and bass players and female instrumentalists (all in abundant quantity in Valencia) to Berklee.

The other key features of the Berklee in Valencia campus are currently being designed: six master's degrees in contemporary writing and production; electronic production and design; global entertainment and music business; scoring for film, television, and video games; symphonic band studies; and contemporary studio performance. We are launching the Mediterranean Music Institute on the Berklee Boston campus this fall, to be continued this spring in Valencia. Also, we expect to bring a number of Boston-campus music business students to Valencia for a semester focused on the global music industry.

Our home in the Palau de la Música (the opera house) is under construction and will include a large recording studio, three small post-production studios, a black box theater, and numerous classrooms and other spaces. We also have access to the extraordinary performance venues within the Palau (400 and 1,500 seats).

I took several strolls past our space and was impressed by the liveliness of the area—hundreds of people jogging, biking, and enjoying this linear park through the heart of the city.

On this trip, we met with the vice president of the region, the minister of culture, and the minister of education, as well as the vice president of the parliament, the head of the Symphonic Band Federation, and the government official who oversees the quasi-public symphonic band program. We met the rector (president) of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, with whom we signed an agreement that will help us secure accreditation for the technology-oriented master's programs we will offer.

As a finale, on Sunday, Larry Monroe, Guillermo Cisneros, and I joined Greg Fritze and the many musicians, conductors, and composers he had introduced us to in our visits to the symphonic band programs for the competition. Among them were two recent Berklee alumni: Zeltia Montes, recent winner of two film scoring awards and her second Jerry Goldsmith Award, and Jesús Santandreu, whose composition was selected as the obligatory piece in last year's competition.

First up was Santa Cecilia (named for the patron saint of music) from Cullera, performing a very modern piece by a famous Valencian composer in addition to the obligatory piece. The conductor was extremely rhythmic and demonstrative, the band full of professionals who had returned to strengthen the ranks. The band put the maximum 140 musicians on stage. I liked the band and the conductor very much and even though I had tried to stay neutral, found myself worrying about how Greg's band, La Primitiva, could compete.

I need not have worried. La Primitiva, though younger, was also on top of its game. Greg's piece was marvelous, with four movements: a Valencian sunrise over the Mediterranean, a typical work day, an evening fiesta, and the conclusion of the day. The bands like big endings, and Greg's piece delivered. The full house erupted in applause.

Later that evening, we celebrated as La Primitiva captured first prize, making it the most successful band in history except for their arch-rivals in Llíria, La Unión. Greg is now five for five and sure to get more commissions—he has become the rabbit's foot of Valencian band competitions.

I am excited to visit again when we have our students performing in the open air around the Palau and enjoying the Mediterranean sun, the paellas of Valencia, the horchata (a delicious local drink made from a nut-like legume), and the deep musical traditions of this very special place.