It all started in 2000 when guitarist Scott Hill met Chilean violist Carlos Boltes. Both were working on their graduate degrees at Hartt School of Music in Hartford and wondering what music they could play together.
“There’s hardly anything written for viola and guitar so Carlos transcribed some Schubert, Bach, Giuliani and the history of the tango from the flute,” Hill said.
Alturas Duo was born and will appear Sunday on the de Blasiis at The Hyde Chamber Music Series. The men took the name “alturas,” which means heights in Spanish, from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poem “Alturas de Macchu Picchu.”
Although the two men gave their first concert that October and even began doing some touring the next year, they knew they couldn’t transcribe forever. That’s when Boltes suggested using the charango. A South American relative of the baroque guitar, it was originally a folk instrument used by the peoples of the Andes and made of a dried armadillo shell. However, wood became the material of choice because of the fragility of the shell and the need to protect the animal, Hill said.
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Froehlich Auditorium of The Hyde Collection, 161 Warren St., Glens Falls
HOW MUCH: $25, $5 for students
MORE INFO: 792-2383, www.deblasiis-chamber-music.org, www.hydecollection.org
“I’ve played charango since my childhood,” Boltes said. “My brothers played, so I learned. In the Andes, it’s considered a folk instrument and all play it except in Brazil where they have their own version.”
CHARANGO: Four ranges
The charango comes in four sizes to cover four ranges from the smallest — called a piccolo charango (for the highest) — to a slightly larger version for the bass. Even at this size, the instrument is still smaller than a standard guitar. There are 10 strings tuned in pairs, so the player plucks only five of them. Strumming is similar to a guitar but is faster, even virtuosic, Boltes said. He played the charango over the phone and the sound was very metallic. Boltes will bring all four of these charangos for the Sunday concert.
“It’s cool stuff,” Hill said.
The suggestion of the charango was also a practical one. When Boltes was thinking about where to go to college when he was 19, he wouldn’t have been accepted in any regular music school.
“I played only charango. It was pretty cool but you’d die of hunger,” he said. “So I had to learn to play real music. I was too old to start playing violin, so a viola was suggested. It was a bigger instrument and fit me better.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree at Carnegie Mellon University and starting his master’s degree at Hartt, he’d only been playing viola a handful of years. His skills on charango and his knowledge of the folk music literature were, however, extensive.
“So we began doing stuff Carlos knew by ear from childhood,” Hill said. “We stayed faithful to the tradition. We also started doing commissions (from Thomas Schuttenhelm, Jaime Romero and Dan Roman).”
Under the tutelage of the Emerson and later the Miami string quartets, which were in residency at Hartt during those years, Alturas made its first disc, “A Repeal of Reticence” (Brioso). They also began listening to recordings of South American folk songs and transcribing what they heard. But by 2005, the two men felt they needed more intensive direction and went to Bolivia to study with charango virtuoso Ernesto Cavour.
“We lived there and watched him play for 10 days and copied him,” Hill said. “That’s when it all started. We began our own versions of the songs with chords and harmonies. Cavour liked it and gave us license to do it.”
One of the things they discovered was a similarity of certain rhythms in South America, even if each country had its own twists as to how it sang a song or what instrument it used. The experience is all aural, Hill said, so even today when they do the folk tunes, they do not write them down but arrange and learn them by ear.
In 2006, Alturas won the New England International Chamber Music Competition and since has performed throughout North America, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia and made yearly trips to Chile.
Commissions and awards
The duo has premiered numerous commissions and worked with such artists as guitarist/composer Horacio Salinas, quena (Andean flute) virtuoso Marcelo Pena-Lobo, pianist Polly Ferman, Argentine bandoneon legend Daniel Binelli (who performed at the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival in 2007), flutists Nicole Esposito and Janet Arms and their old mentor Cavour. Alturas has made three other discs — with the most recent, “Blue Solitude” (Con Brio) with Esposito in folk music of Argentina, Peru and Chile and new works by Sergio Assad, Leo Brouwer, and Raimundo Penaforte.
In 2010, Alturas received two accolades: It won the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, beating out 70 other ensembles, Hill said; and became the Goodwill Ambassadors for the Chilean-American Foundation to support the children of Chile after the devastation of the 2010 earthquake. Recently, Alturas was named artist-in-residence for the Intake Organization, which promotes the use and understanding of South American instruments and music.
Alturas’ Sunday concert will include several folk tune arrangements and Hill’s transcription of a Telemann viola concerto. Their touring season continues the next day with a concert in Virginia, followed by a tour of Guatemala and then New England. The tour is mingled with various master classes and lectures on what they’re doing, even in Spanish, which Hill has had to learn how to speak.
“We like to work with audiences,” Hill said.