August 16, 1917 - December 2008
born in Panama City, Panama, composed during the Modern period
Faced in the 1950s with local hostility to old-fashioned nationalism, the Panamanian-born Roque Cordero, who had been fusing nationalism with serialism for several years, cunningly described his style as personal rather than national, noting that a personal approach can include a feeling for the music of one's native land. Once he permanently established himself in the United States in the late '60s, that native feeling apparently became less intense as dodecaphony gained the upper hand. Still, much of Cordero's music is notable for its balance of folklore with advanced techniques.
His training began in Panama, where he was writing band pieces from an early age (he played clarinet in a fire brigade band from 1933). In 1943, he won a scholarship to that anti-Panama, the University of Minnesota, where he took conducting lessons from Dimitri Mitropoulos, who was impressed by Cordero's 1939 Capricho interiorano. While in Minnesota, he studied counterpoint and composition for four years with Ernst Krenek at Hamline University, from which he graduated in 1947. It was through Mitropoulos that Cordero met Krenek and the young Panamanian regarded Mitropoulos as a father figure. It was Mitropoulos who premiered Cordero's Panamanian Overture No. 2 with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1946. After graduation, Cordero remained in America to study conducting at the Berkshire Music Center and then in New York with Leon Barzin. In 1949, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition and conducting. Back in Panama, he took a post as professor of composition at the National Conservatory (later called National Music Institute) from 1950 to 1964, serving as the school's director for most of that time. His work there greatly improved the quality of music instruction in Panama; the Institute granted the country's first degrees in music teaching and composition. His Curso de solfeo became the basis of music theory instruction through much of Latin America. Cordero was appointed conductor of the Panama National Orchestra in 1964, but in 1966, he returned to the United States to help run the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University (1966 - 1969) and then teach at Illinois State University in Normal (1972 - 1987).
Cordero's earliest works are basically tonal and nationalist, rather in the style of the pre-serial Ginastera, but from 1946, under Krenek's influence, he employed a modified, Bergian twelve-tone technique, starting with his Sonatina for Violin and Piano. Even then, his music could allude to Latin American rhythms, as in the outer movements of the Sonatina and the ostinato patterns of his one-movement Symphony No. 2. Furthermore, the angularity of Panamanian folk melodies lent itself naturally to a serial environment. Over the next years, his style remained consistent, although gradually favoring more irregular phrases, more complex rhythmic layering, and greater fascination with timbral effects.
Unusually for a composer/conductor, Cordero's catalog is swollen with chamber music, especially for unusual combinations of instruments (such as his Permutaciones 7 for Clarinet, Trumpet, Timpani, Piano, Violin, Viola, and Bass). He has, however, produced many significant orchestral works, including four symphonies and concertos for piano, violin, and viola. ~ James Reel, Rovi