La Virgen Negra

CD Review: La Virgen Negra

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, one of the joys of running this blog has been the introduction to so many different scores and composers that I would might not have come across on my own. My latest “discovery” is Venezuelan composer Elik Álvarez and his score for the 2008 mystical comedy LA VIRGEN NEGRA.

The film stars Carmen Maura (best known for her performances in Pedro Almodovar classics like VOLVER and WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN) as one of the inhabitants of a small fishing village on the Venezuelan coast whose life is changed after the appearance of a black virgin.

In addition to his film work, Álvarez’s background includes commercials, game music, and television. Not surprisingly, his work for LA VIRGEN NEGRA is an enticing blend of Latin-flavored harmonies and rhythms, spiced with a tinge of musical mysticism.

The main titles begin with the plaintive sound of the cuatro (a Latin American guitar) before the ethnic percussion pulls us into an insinuating Latin groove and the cuatro plays the main theme of the score. A haunting female vocal line gives hints at the mysticism yet to come.

La Virgen Negra soundtrack
“Lurdita y Manita/Pueblo de Negros”

The vocal line (voiced by the ever-present Lisbeth Scott, whose vocal talents have graced such high profile scores as MUNICH and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST), representing what I assume is the black virgin of the film’s title, comes into her own in “Lurdita y Manita” singing the haunting secondary theme. While I initially dismissed the use of Scott’s voice as another instance of what my friend Tim Grieving calls “moaning woman,” her vocals function as much more than that in this particular score. With an undulating theme that burrows under your skin, the wordless vocal line contributes to the haunting quality of Álvarez’s music.

The cuatro weaves in and out of the score. When it is not used for melodic purposes, it blends into the accompaniment or functions as a member of the ethnic percussion ensemble, which includes maracas, Japanese taiko drums, and West African djun-djun drums. And this is not to ignore the contribution of the orchestra, which gives the score depth, shimmering mysticism, and a solid bedrock upon which Scott’s vocals and Rafel “El Pollo” Brito’s lively cuatro playing can rest.

Álvarez recorded the score with 58 members of the world renown Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (founded by Gustavo Dudamel, the dynamic young musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic), who perform the score on par with the best of Hollywood’s studio musicians. And while giving into the Latin rhythms and themes of Álvarez’s music is not difficult, repeated listenings bring out even further beauty in the score.

Unless you live in Venezuela, Curacao, or Aruba, you probably haven’t seen this film. HBO plans to show the film in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America beginning this summer, and a DVD is imminent, which will include a special feature on the score, with scenes from the scoring sessions and more.

Álvarez will premiere the concert suite from LA VIRGEN NEGRA on February 28, 2010, in Valencia, Venezuela, conducting The Carabobo Symphony Orchestra while scenes from the film are shown on a big screen. 

Álvarez is definitely a talent to watch.

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