Michael Mullan - Sergio Ortega Alvarado: Presente!

Chile went through an extraordinary creative ferment in the period leading up to and through the 1970-73 Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende and the composer and pianist Sergio Ortega, who has died in Paris aged 65, was crucial in the New Chilean Song movement.

His output ranged from delicate chamber pieces to full-scale operas, but his best-known works are two of the many vigorous agit-prop songs he wrote for Chile's socialist experiment: Allende's election anthem, Venceremos, and the hymn of anti-fascist resistance, El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido.

Both "We Shall Triumph" and "The People United Shall Never Be Defeated" became worldwide standards in the socialist songbook. There was much more to Ortega's talent than leftist lyrics with memorable melodies: his fatal pancreatic cancer was diagnosed just as his most ambitious opera to date, "Fulgor y Muerte de Joaquín Murieta", was taking Finland's Savonlinna festival by storm. Like some of his other notable works, this was based on an epic poem by his great friend, compatriot and fellow-communist, the Nobel prizewinner Pablo Neruda.

Born in the northern city of Antofagasta, Ortega studied in the National Conservatory under Gustavo Becerra, another key figure in Chilean musical history. Ortega's early career included periods with an institute for music promotion and as a theatre sound engineer, until he won a composition chair in the conservatory in 1969.

In 1966, Neruda invited him to score his text on Murieta, a quasi-mythical Chilean horse-trainer who went to California in the 1840s gold rush and ended up a Robin Hood-type rebel. Ortega's first version, which he called a cantata, was staged in the following year. He collaborated with the poet and Becerra on a 1970 sung version of Neruda's Canto General.

Appointed creative director of the university television channel in 1970, Ortega was increasingly active in politics. He co-wrote Canto al Programa, a musical presentation of the Popular Unity platform, performed by the folk group Inti-Illimani and featuring Ortega's
campaign anthem Venceremos. In 1972, the era's other foremost folk group, Quilapayún, performed on La Fragua (The Forge), a double LP of Ortega's music featuring some of his most trenchant political lyrics.

As the forces of the right gathered, Ortega and Quilapayún created one of the century's most famous protest songs, El Pueblo Unido: "Stand up to sing, we're certain to triumph, / unity's banners are on the march / and you'll march beside me / to see your song and your flag in flower."

Three months after the original was penned, Pinochet's air force bombarded the Moneda Palace and the experiment was over. The right's contempt for New Chilean Song was brutally illustrated with the murder of one of its chief exponents, Ortega's friend Victor Jara, days after the September 11 coup.

Escaping into exile, Ortega settled in France, first in Nanterre where he worked with the Franco-Chilean musical collective Taller Recabarren, then in Pantin in Seine-St-Denis, as director of the National School of Music. He returned to Neruda as the source for his cantata Bernardo O'Higgins Requelme 1810, a homage to a hero of Chilean independence, premiered in 1978. An operatic trilogy celebrated the bicentenary of the French revolution; Ortega took out French citizenship some years ago and it remained his home even after he was permitted to re-enter Chile.

Santiago's Municipal Theatre was the scene for the first staging of Ortega's reworking of Joaquín Murieta on an operatic scale in 1998. When chosen for this year's Finnish festival, more than 200 performers and technicians were involved and the reception was rapturous for its audacious blend of symphonic music with tango, cueca, cachimbo, salsa and other South American vernacular styles.

Shortly before his death, Ortega had worked with his eldest son, Chañaral Ortega Miranda, on what will be the last of his dozen operas: Pedro Páramo, based on the haunting novel by Mexico's Juan Rulfo.

He is also survived by two younger sons, Leonardo and Gabriel, by Sophie, his compañera, and also by his former wife, Ana Maria Miranda. In Santiago, a large-scale funeral is planned featuring the country's main musical talents, including Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani, the chorus that sang Joaquín Murieta and the Chilean Symphony Orchestra. Ortega will be buried close to Victor Jara, on whose 30th anniversary he died.

Sergio Ortega Alvarado, musician; born February 2 1938; died September 15 2003.


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