When I started to think about this new post, the idea of doing a piece about a neglected vocal category came to mind. I had recently written about the Basso Buffo and about the Contralto, so I thought I’d do a piece about the Countertenor.

david daniels cencic scholl

That’s when I opened a Pandora’s Box of singers, not all that well known – dozens and dozens of them – all countertenors. All working professionals. All very good singers. Mostly Europeans, by the way. Does anybody need to be reminded of the existence of David Daniels or Max Emmanuel Cencic or Andreas Scholl?

Well, I thought, nothing neglected about that vocal category, thank goodness.  So I forged ahead still thinking I’d focus on a handful of well-known countertenors. But I wanted to dig deeper, so I searched further, limiting my focus to Baroque specialists who undertake the male leads in any one of Handel’s forty-two or Vivaldi’s forty-six or the several dozen operas that the Scarlatti brand (father and son) penned.

Those would be manageable parameters, I thought. Here was a field of over one hundred-fifty plus stage works, most written during a period of 60 years that straddled the Naples-Venice-London heyday of Baroque Opera.

And who were the singers for whom Vivaldi and the Scarlatti family in Italy and Handel in London wrote? Castrati would be the answer: the legendary, larger-than-life superstars of the 18th century who commanded fees and perks equaled in today’s world of Opera by a very chosen few if any.

There are obviously no recordings of the great Castrati of the 18th century. We can only read contemporary descriptions that defy one to keep a straight face given the over-the-top praise lavished on these vocal phenomena.

But go past all the lavish praise and the questionable critical writings of the time and you will unearth some valuable details.

The castrato was subjected to a brutal surgical procedure that allowed him to retain some of the physical characteristics of his pre-pubescent vocal apparatus, along with the loss of some of his male genitalia.

Those characteristics – range and flexibility uppermost – would be retained as the castrato grew to be a man. Throughout those years of maturation the castrato singer would undergo a rigorous regimen of voice lessons, dance movement, calisthenics, theory and solfeggio, repertory studies and gradually be groomed for a career as a singer.

By age 18 or shortly thereafter, the typical castrato was good to go on to a career.

The physical characteristics of the typical castrato were just about the same as those of many an operatic singer of our time.

Senesino,_Cuzzoni,_Berenstadt.jpgSenesino (Handel’s Radamisto and Giulio Cesare) and Bernacchi (Scarlatti’s go-to castrato) were large, tall, heavy-set, barrel-chested men. Bernacchi was praised for his singing but was described by a wag of his time “as big as a Spanish friar.” Senesino was frequently caricatured by the London press for his girth.

The castrati were in no way effeminate men, and their physical appearance, along with big voices equipped them to portray warriors and kings and lovers in the dramma per musica of Vivaldi, Handel and Scarlatti’s time. Many of the great castrati sang in a range comparable to that of the contralto of our day and age.

When today we set out to cast the many Baroque operas that have entered the “bread and butter” repertory of European Opera houses and that (at a glacial pace) is beginning to enter the repertory of American opera houses, we see managements in a quandary.

If the rolodex of General Director XYZ is long enough to cast a production of Giulio Cesare without breaking into a sweat, he or she may prefer to cast a singer who will look like Cesar did when he wooed the Queen of the Nile. Mind you, this is not the aging Cesar of Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar but rather the virile warrior who would lead his army by the day and conquer in the bedroom at night.


Who do we cast? When the New York City Opera decided to pair up Beverly Sills and bass-baritone Norman Treigle in the central roles of Handel’s Giulio Cesare it did so not with an eye on the artistic sparrow but with both eyes with glasses on the nose, on the box office. Treigle and Sills, not Handel were the big draws.

Today, no opera impresario would risk casting his Handel with any other than vocally-appropriate singers. There are many counter-tenors who could take on Handel’s warrior-lover. But I will not mention any names, but  note that the color of the voice that sings the role of Cesare should contrast with the color of the voices of the singers who undertake the other counter-tenor roles in that opera. And that vocal hue should tend towards the darker end of the spectrum.

There’s Ptolemy, a villain, There’s the young Sesto, originally sung by the soprano Margherita Durastanti, but singable by a countertenor. There’s Nireno, a supporting counter-tenor role. Achilla is a nice bass role, Curio a comprimario one. And there is Cesar.

The put upon impresario who has programmed Giulio Cesare for next season and has four countertenor roles to cast twice – once for real, twice for covers – better start working that rolodex now.

stutzmannsonia prina as cesare

If I were on the driver’s seat and had to cast from the American regional ranks and I had a budget with which to splurge, I would fly myself economy-class to Paris or Milan and try to hunt down Nathalie Stutzmann or Sonia Prina and build my production around either one of those two formidable singers.

Get in touch with any number of artist managements that have a good number of singers in their rosters and you will have no difficulty in finding terrific American singers of both sexes who will happily agree to undertake Cleopatra, Cornelia, Sesto, Achilla and Ptolemy.

leah marie katherfine joly kayleigh

Just in my neck of the woods I know of a terrific Cleopatra. Her name is Katherine Jolly and she is on the Voice faculty at Indiana University. Leah Marie, a young dramatic mezzo with agility and the legato to play the captive Cornelia would be my first choice. Kayleigh Decker, based in Cincinnati would be my perfect Sesto.

All of these are beautifully-trained American singers who have talent, voice and acting chops. Hire Americans and you will have a great show. And if you are fortunate enough to find even one countertenor for your production of Giulio Cesare, hire him on the spot. In our country, music training institutions are just starting to legitimize the countertenor voice as  another important member of the operatic family.

Rafael de Acha



CCM MID-1990'S

Since you are a reader of Rafael Music Notes you must also be a fan of our University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

And even if you do not live within driving distance of CCM’s campus, you must by now be used to my frequent previews and reviews of its more than one thousand annual arts events.

Moreover, whether or not you regularly attend any of CCM’s concerts, operas, ballets, musicals and plays, you are reading this!

I hope that you will go from reading about CCM’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary to actually catching at least some of its upcoming celebration and buying a pair of tickets to one or more of the events lined up for the 2017-2018 season.

Here’s some history.


In 1819 the University of Cincinnati was founded in our already growing city by the Ohio River. No music school existed in the State of Ohio until 1867, when Clara Baur rented a room in Miss Nourse’s School for Young Ladies and established the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Within the year, Chicago and Boston had founded their own conservatories, and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music had established itself as the only residential music conservatory in the country.

CINCINNATI COLLEGE-CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC 1955Enrollment grew to 1,000 students and the faculty of the school grew exponentially, as did its physical plant, when the former Shilito Mansion was purchased along with the land on which to add future buildings.

CICNINNATI COLLEGE OF MUSIC 1878Meanwhile another music school had come into being in 1878: the College of Music of Cincinnati.

Its location close to Cincinnati’s Music Hall, its close ties to the University of Cincinnati’s School of Education, and a world-class faculty contributed to its growth as a training center for young people seeking an academic degree in Music Education.

By 1955 it had become obvious to the managements of both the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and  the College of Music of Cincinnati that, by uniting both institutions great things could be accomplished.

Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music was born.

CCM 1967

In 1962 the hyphenated title of the school changed once more when CCM became the 14th college of the University of Cincinnati.

Immediately thereafter construction began on the CCM complex on UC’s campus. By 1967 construction had been completed and the School’s one hundredth anniversary was celebrated in the state-of-the-art Corbett Auditorium with the Cincinnati premiere of Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor.

That is but some of CCM’s history. More details about CCM’s history can be found in the excellent article by Rebecca Butts on

In my next post I will share details about what’s up ahead at CCM.

Rafael de Acha


nicole cabell

My review of La boheme on today’s Cincinnati Enquirer:

Moving performances impress in ‘La Bohème’

Both the uninitiated and the inveterate opera fan will be impressed by the lovely singing of soprano Nicole Cabell and tenor Sean Panikkar and by the antics of the quartet of bohemians that provide the Cincinnati Opera audience with as much humor as can be expected in an opera based on the novel “Vie de Bohème” by French writer Henri Murger.

In “La Bohème” there are neither bad guys nor hard-hearted gals, just plenty of passion and heartbreak in 1840s Paris, and Puccini’s librettists Illica and Giacosa deliver a now feel happy/now feel sad libretto tailor-made for Puccini’s music.

The story is straightforward: Rodolfo, a struggling writer (Panikkar) and Mimì, a seamstress (Cabell), encounter each other in an unheated attic after Alcindoro, the landlord (baritone Marco Nisticò) has cut off the electricity until he gets paid for the monthly rent of the rundown quarters shared by Rodolfo and his friend Marcello, a painter (Rodion Pogossov).

Tentatively at first, and then impulsively, Mimì and Rodolfo swear to love each other.

It is Christmas Eve, and Marcello, Schaunard (Edward Nelson), a musician, and Colline (Nathan Stark), a philosopher have gone down to the Café Momus. The two lovers soon join them, but the celebration is interrupted by the arrival of Marcello’s ex, Musetta (Jessica Rivera) who makes a grand entrance in the arms of Alcindoro (Marco Nisticò), her sugar daddy du jour.

After the fun and games of Act I are over, the action takes us to winter, a year later. Mimì and Rodolfo have parted company because of her flirtatiousness (says he) and his jealousy (says she). The real reason is that she is wasting away due to an unnamed disease and Rodolfo is terrified to lose her.

While Marcello and Musetta hurl insults at each other, Mimì and Rodolfo vow to stay together until spring comes. But spring comes and they again break up, and it is only at the end of the opera that Mimì returns to die in the arms of Rodolfo.

The production – the same one seen here in Cincinnati a few years ago – has a set that evokes a black-and-white movie of Paris in the 1930s, a backdrop for the mostly black and gray costumes of both chorus and principals.

An unabashedly romantic opera that premiered in 1896, originally conceived to be set in the 1840s Paris of Murger’s novel, could be an uncomfortable fit into the Paris of the 1930s, but as conceived by Jonathan Miller, this production’s original director, the concept works.

Natascha Metherell does a splendid job of directing her principals and chorus on a two-tiered set where space is at a premium. She makes things work while keeping everyone on stage away from any kind of operatic posturing.

Making his Cincinnati Opera debut, CSO Music Director Louis Langrée elicited terrific playing from his musicians, but many ragged moments in which coordination and balance between pit and stage were at loggerheads kept the evening from what could have been a great performance.

The choral passages, however, were perfectly sung by Henri Venanzi’s choristers, including the children in the Café Momus scene.

Cabell sang and acted an impassioned Mimì, her big lyric soprano voice soaring when soaring was needed, most notably in her second-act encounters with Marcello and in the ensuing farewell aria and duet with Rodolfo.

Panikkar was the perfect Rodolfo: good to look at, sincere in his acting, and rock solid vocally in his big solo moments.

Pogossov and his fellow bohemians, Rivera, Nelson – one of the best Schaunards I have ever seen – and Nathan Stark were a terrific quartet of bohemians.

The Cincinnati Opera’s “La Bohème” is a joint effort between our opera company, now in its 97th season, and the English National Opera. Puccini’s opera is on stage at the Aronoff Center for the Arts June 17, 22 and 24 at 7:30 p.m.


Five international ensembles and one great pianist will play in Chamber Music Cincinnati’s upcoming 2017-2018 season.

The Chamber Music Cincinnati season at a glance:


Marc-André Hamelin, piano – Monday September18 at 7:30 pm Memorial Hall

Danish Quartet – Thursday October 10 at 7:30 pm Memorial Hall

Tetzlaff Quartet -Tuesday January 23 at 7:30 pm Jarson-Kaplan Theater, Aronoff Center


Apollon Musaget – Tuesday February 20 at 7:30 pm Jarson-Kaplan Theater, Aronoff Center

Artemis Quartet – Tuesday April 11 at 7:30 pm Jarson-Kaplan Theater, Aronoff Center

Early Bird subscriptions are now on sale through July 31 for a discounted $75 for 6 concerts – a discount of $55 off the regular $130 price that goes into effect on August 1, after which date single tickets, if available, go for $30.  Call 513 721 3344 or go to for more information

Rafael de Acha



Sir Thomas Beecham quipped that the imposing sound of Dame Clara Butt could be heard on the other side of the English Channel ( ) She is heard here in the drinking song from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Alright, she is indisputably an acquired taste – one that I have. Get past all the jokes about steroids and do listen to Madame Butt’s agility, unabashed use of the registers, including some very nice above the staff embellishments.

 Richard Strauss joked with the orchestra during the dress rehearsal of the premiere of Elektra: “Lauter! Lauter! Ich kann die Stimme von Frau Schumann-Heink noch hören!“

 And then Gilbert and Sullivan wrote cartoonish battleax parts like Buttercup and Katisha for the contraltos of their day. Here’s D’Oily Carte stalwart Bertha Lewis in the HMS Pinafore Little Buttercup ditty:

Whatever happened to the great tradition of contralto singing that goes back to Handel’s London female stars and then culminates with Rossini’s prima donnas? Should we blame Verdi and Wagner for largely ignoring the maternal, deep velvety quality of the contralto voice?

Thank goodness for Meyerbeer in France, who contributed the part of Fidès to the canon. Listen to Ernestine Schumann Heink tear fiercely into the air O, Prêtres de Baal in Le prophète with its two octaves mine field:

Maybe Gounod’s Siebel in Faust should always be sung by a contralto, certainly as sung here by Karin Branzel:

 Russia? All those nannies in the operas of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky are written for contraltos. Here’s a spectacular Bolshoi star, Varvara Gargarina in a 1948 recording of the Princess‘ aria from Dargomishky‘s The Mermaid.

 Listen to Lili Chookasian’s in the Verdi Requiem and celebrate what a good contralto can accomplish. For my money, no mezzo-soprano I can think of, maybe Marilyn Horne excepted, can begin to bring to the Liber Scriptus the take no prisoners sound that Chookasian summons: (go to 14:00)

 Many contraltos have voiced complaints about how their voice teachers less thna gently coaxed their voices upwards to conquer the mezzo-soprano repertory. But, in fact, a great contralto in her prime – take Sigrid Onégin’s O don fatale – can sing the living daylights out of Eboli, (, high B’s and all, and still remain at the core a true contralto.

 Ewa Podleś has recorded and sung Rosina’s and Cenerentola’s arias time and again with flawless flexibility and an easy top voice. Here she is in Una voce poco fa (

 But range is not the issue. Tessitura is.  Color is. Contraltos can reach the soprano High B and even top C  without breaking a sweat, but they do not like to live up there. Look at the music of Rossini’s Arbace or Isabella, written for the great Marietta Marcolini, and you will see that 90% of the notes lie between the C below the treble staff and the C in the middle of it. Occasional ascents to the top of the contralto’s high middle voice abound, but home sweet home lies between C and C.

Perhaps the problem with the absence of contraltos lies with the way music began to be orchestrated by Verdi and Wagner in mid-19th century. Whereas Rossini accompanied the busy vocal line with a small pit orchestra – rarely over forty – that strummed along as the singer pirouetted her way into vocal heights, Verdi and Wagner augmented the number of players in the pit, and began to have the orchestra double the vocal line. The only way that the agile contraltos of the Bel Canto era could keep up with these changes was by singing higher into an area where their voices, now at the top of their range could begin to cut through the mass of sound that separated them from the audience. And thus the mezzo-soprano came of age.

 We learn to be happy with our lot in life. If all the contralto singing we can get these days is from superb artists who choose to specialize in the Bach and Handel repertory, then so be it. Bring us more Nathalie Stutzmann and may she sing to us like this ( ) for a long time.


And then, let us not ever forget how those legendary recordings of Marian Anderson ( and Kathleen Ferrier ( listening pleasure and spiritual comfort to all of us contralto-deprived ears.

Rafael de Acha




Renato Capecchi, Paolo Montarsolo, Sesto Bruscantini, Fernando Corena, Peter Strummer, Thomas Hammons, Alessandro Corbelli, Salvatore Baccaloni, Enzo Dara, Ambrogio Maestri, John del Carlo, Bruno Praticò, Claudio Desderi, Kevin Glavin, Peter Kálmán…great singing actors each and every one. Some are still active in the profession, some retired.

Several are names found in books about the history of Opera, some are operatic generalists who have sung both serious and comic roles. But one thing they all have in common is that early or late in their careers they sang the buffo repertory with a great degree of success.

So what makes a bass singer a buffo bass? Essentially a buffo bass is most often a high bass or bass-baritone whose voice has to encompass a range generally higher than that of his “serious” counterparts. Then there is the matter of physicality. The plus-sized buffo basses of the past, starting with the great Luigi Lablache over two centuries ago and later including Mozart’s Francesco Benucci, creator of the roles of Leporello, Figaro and Guglielmo, were huge men whose girth and lung capacity made them both physically funny and vocally imposing.

Pictured L o R, top to bottom: Sesto Bruscantini, Fernando Corena, Renato Capecchi, Salvatore Baccaloni, Thomas Hammons, Peter Strummer, Paolo Montarsolo, Italo Tajo.

Closer to our time, Fernando Corena and Salvatore Baccaloni were both large men with large voices and even larger personalities. Corena often sang outside the parameters of the buffo repertory but his “money roles” were the great Rossini, Donizetti and Mozart buffoons.

Baccaloni sang at first the standard bass roles, but he quickly chose to specialize in the comic role repertoire. Both these singers brought to their work the kind of vocalism that could not be easily dismissed. Just listen to the You Tube clip of Baccaloni’s rendering of Sparafucile’s encounter with Rigoletto in a 1927 recording opposite baritone Luigi Piazza, and you will have the measure of the man’s artistry. That early on in his career the keen use of what Italians call “la parola scenica” defined Baccaloni as a resourceful singing actor. ( – start at 15:33)

The buffo repertory was not defined until the 20th century. Prior to that, the great bases sang everything under the sun. But as the operatic repertoire became larger and more demanding, the need for specializing became a must for young singers entering their careers.

That said, famous basses and baritones the likes of Bryn Terfel, Giuseppe Taddei and Italo Tajo and “house basses” such as Donald Gramm and Ezio Flagello made forays into the buffo repertory partly driven by the desire to take on roles like Dulcamara in Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore or Don Magnifico or Dandini in Rossini’s Cenerentola.

Whether or not these indispensable artists succeeded or failed in these artistic exploration is subject to discussion, but the recorded legacy of true buffo specialists such as Renato Capecchi, Paolo Montarsolo, Sesto Bruscantini, Fernando Corena, Salvatore Baccaloni, Enzo Dara, Alessandro Corbelli and Ambrogio Maestri speaks for itself.

Sadly, the classical records industry first went crazy then belly up after the transitions from 78’s to long playing records to cassettes to 8-tracks to CD’s to VHS to DVD’s exhausted collectors with choices and challenged them with ever-rising price-points. As a result of this chaos and the ever-rising costs of recording classical music in America, artists of the high caliber of Peter Strummer, Thomas Hammons,  and John del Carlo, were not given the opportunity to leave a substantial recorded legacy of their great work in the buffo repertory. In recent times the MET’s HD presentations have become the only existing record of the work of many fine artists.

Ultimately girth and range is not all that defines a great buffo: style, flexibility, diction, and, above all, acting ability are an essential part and parcel of the musical and vocal arsenal of the buffo bass, a kind of singing actor that  comes from a long tradition that extends all the way back to the works of Pergolesi, whose roots, in turn are deep in the Italian soil that nurtured the commedia dell’arte.

Rafael de Acha




How about Havana?

There is any number of tour companies regularly taking groups of tourists to the island. Some restrictions apply for Americans.

For US nationals there are guided tours. You have to stay where they want you to stay, eat where they want you to eat, see what they want you to see. They go under the banner of “people-to-people” tours, where they take you to “cultural” sites, such as the Cathedral, or to a cigar “museum” where they hope you will buy some Cuban cigars to bring back to the US. Don’t. Customs will confiscate them.

That is pretty much the picture that I saw in person when in 2015 my wife and I visited the city where I was born and grew up and which I had not seen in 57 years.

As an American citizen you can go on any number of tours and cruise ships that will take you to Havana and, in some instances to some of the smaller cities in the interior of the country. You would do well to first get an idea of prices from any one of the many companies that specialize on tours to Cuba or those that include the island in their catalogues as one of their destinations.

Again, compare prices.

But there are other alternatives available to the seasoned traveler.

Many adventurous tourists interested in seeing Cuba on their own terms are flying to the island on carriers that originate in  Europe. Some originate in Jamaica. The flying time is longer than the 45 minute flight between Miami and Havana but not by much. The Cuban authorities will not stamp a visa on your passport, but will instead give you a document that you will turn back upon departure. That way you will not be hassled upon your return home by an overly inquisitive customs person. Do remember though that you should carry a traveler’s insurance policy that includes repatriation costs in case of an emergency.

Once adventurous tourists get to Havana they can stay wherever they wish (see list below), eat at any number of family-owned paladares (some listed below) and choose to lie on a sandy beach or walk around in the capital, or hire a taxi – many of them pre-1960 American vintage cars – or visit any number of the meticulously-restored buildings that date back to the 1700’s and 1800’s that are now repurposed as museums. The possibilities are endless. Once there, where do you go and what do you want to see? That depends on what your interests might be. For those interested in getting an overview of the city, here follow some ideas.

Even if you have gone with a group or on a charter flight or cruise ship you are likely to be given some free time to explore on your own. I suggest hiring a taxi for the day or half-day. Cuban taxi operators are free-lancers licensed by the government, and they operate, as so many private entrepreneurs in today’s Cuba do, on their terms, meaning no tariffs, often no English, just lots of Cuban charm.

Negotiate the price, but do so fairly. Pay in dollars. You will have a Cuban friend for life. You can then let the taxi driver/guide take you to what he thinks will be of interest to you. Or you can have a list of sights and sites and give it to him up front, so that he can lay out an itinerary that makes sense. Add an incentive such as buying him a lunch half-way through your sightseeing trip. You’ll get the royal treatment. Tip generously. We hired a taxi for one afternoon for $40. Tipped $5 at the end. The driver was over the Cuban moon.

If the visitor is interested in Cuban visual arts, I would encourage attending the Havana Biennial, which occurs every two years. But at any time there are several art centers where the art lover can merely browse or acquire a work of art for a few dollars or for a sizeable purchase price. It  depends on the artist. Arrangements can be downright confusing, so that, if you plan to buy Cuban art, you ought to do some homework ahead of your visit.

Music in Cuba is everywhere: early everybody can sing or play an instrument or make up an instrument out of a tin can or a wooden box. Music is in the air. You can walk into any café or restaurant and find a trio playing and singing boleros from the 1920’s or trovas from today.

On one visit we heard a brief daytime concert by the great choral group Coraleo in a music conservatory, visited a recording studio where a recording engineer and his producer were seated at an impressive console putting the finishing touches on a DVD of Cuban Salsa music, while in another room a couple – she from Germany, he a Cuban – were laying down the first track of JS Bach’s complete suites for cello and harpsichord.

In Cuba, the performing arts are alive and well and thriving, especially Classical Ballet and Modern Dance. If the visitor happens to be in town at the time of one of the many performances given by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba at the elegant Teatro Nacional on the Prado Boulevard or at the other National Theatre, the one located in the Plaza de la Revolucion, and can get a ticket, he or she will be in for an artistic treat.

Havana is a sprawling 281 square mile metropolis. Those who go to the Cuban capital expecting to find another sleepy little Caribbean backwater are in for a surprise. The City is home to 2.1 million people, and because of its being surrounded by water on three sides – the Caribbean Ocean, the Bay of Havana and the Almendares River – it has had to expand eastwards beyond the Bay into the Habana del Este neighborhood, where large apartment buildings are home to a growing population. On its west, Marianao is home to the overflow of humanity that cannot find a place to live in the city proper.

On a first time or even a subsequent one you may want to concentrate on one or two of the several neighborhoods that make up Havana. The old part of the City – dating back to 1592 – hugs the bay and expands for a good couple of miles. Within it are contained a significant number of architectural treasures, some of which date back three or more centuries. This old part of the City is best seen on foot, wearing comfortable shoes and carrying a handy map to help locate things. Many of the old buildings are now home to hotels, eateries, boutiques, art galleries and museums. Funds from UNESCO continue to help the City renovate, restore and save architectural gems that have earned Havana the status of World Heritage Site.

The Vedado and Playa neighborhoods are a mixed bag of old and sometimes dilapidated buildings long past their former glory, side-by-side with imposing mansions dating back as much as a hundred years, now serving as homes for embassies and consulates and, on occasion, as homes for members of a growing Cuban elite made up of foreign and Cuban-born entrepreneurs and government functionaries.

The US embargo on trade with Cuba has made it very difficult for the City to maintain all of its neighborhoods. Paint is hard to come by. Pressure cleaning is unknown or unavailable. Cement, bricks, concrete, steel and many construction materials are difficult to obtain. But Cubans are very good at two things: “resolver” (to solve) and “inventar” (to invent), and all over the city you see the signs of ingenuity at work.

The house where I grew up – a three family triplex mid-century building – now sports the same coat of now-peeling paint it got in 1958, and on its roof now sits a ramshackle shack made of found materials and plywood, a jerry-rigged home to somebody’s daughter or son and their in-law still wanting to live on their own but unable to find an apartment or even a room for themselves in a city where new construction is a rare thing. But, yes, a visit to Havana’s outlying neighborhoods will give you a glimpse of how most Cubans live: cleanly, modestly, even in straitened circumstances, but with touching dignity.


In my library I have several maps ( of both Cuba and Havana. There are also several excellent guidebooks that will help you navigate your way around Havana and, beyond it, the island.

I like CUBA, published by Moon Handbooks in Canada ( and Frommer’s CUBA (email:

CUBA, published by the English company AA (email: is my favorite, for its pocketsize dimensions and for the maps included in it.


Most hotels in Cuba, even those with 4-star ratings do not begin to compare to those in the United States or Europe. On one occasion we stayed in the Melia Cohiba in the Vedado neighborhood. There was nothing really wrong with it, but it was neither near anything interesting that you could walk to nor comparable to similarly-priced hotels at home amenities.

Getting to know a city means walking around it and, for my money, next time I visit Cuba I will try to book a room in one of the hotels in or near the old city, such as the San Miguel, the Raquel, the Saratoga, and or the Mercure Sevilla. There are also some very nice B&B’s in or near the Bay, some with gorgeous views of the Bay and the City of Regla on the other side.

If I were you I would make all my travel arrangements through a good travel agent. Our friends at Victoria Travel ( here in Cincinnati have always done a great job for us on any number of trips we have taken.

OK, now let’s have something to eat. But not in the hotel, unless breakfast is included and edible. Contrary to myth and misinformation, Havana is a great city in which to eat out. A couple of caveats, though: drink bottled water, not ever tap water. Avoid iced drinks. Cuban beer is great, so is Cuban rum, but it is served mostly in iced drinks. Avoid those and drink the beer. My wife and I ended up in a hospital in Miami with a bad case of…Montezuma’s Revenge. I called it Fidel’s Last Wish.

Avoid leafy vegetables and instead enjoy Cuban tomatoes, avocados, plantains, eggplant. Do not leave without trying some of the tropical fruits of Cuba: mamey, anon, zapote, guanabana, pineapple…Cubans have always had a light breakfast: a cup of café con leche, bread and butter, occasionally a fried egg with some ham and even some potatoes or some fruit. Try having a Cuban-style breakfast at any number of little cafes that you will find in the vicinity of your hotel. After that you will be ready to explore.

Cuban cuisine is not spicy hot, like Mexican food can be. Instead of chili peppers, Cubans flavor their cooking with sofrito – a mix of garlic, onion, olive oil, bay laurel leaves, cumin, cilantro, and tomatoes using the sum of all these parts or in partial combination thereof, depending on whatever is available at the market that day.

Some of the chefs that rule the kitchens of the humbly appointed eateries of Havana are geniuses who, in the absence of the traditional minced beef used in the Cuban dish known as Picadillo, get away with a minor peccadillo by substituting lamb or pork (or even rabbit or goat in extreme cases) for the beef traditionally used for this dish. Ropa Vieja, Fricase de Puerco, Fricase de Pollo are all must haves. Snapper and other fish are as widely available to the visitor able to pay with cucs (the currency available only to the tourist) as they are scarce to the average Cuban.

How odd it is that dairy products are hard to come by for many Cubans, unless they are the parents of an infant, though ice cream is widely available in popular ice cream parlors, such as Copelia, at the corner of L and 23 streets in Vedado, as long as one is willing to put up with the interminable long lines.

For lunch or dinner avoid the overpriced and mostly mediocre government-owned restaurants and try instead a family-owned paladar. These are small eateries created by enterprising Cubans in the living and dining rooms of private homes. They are mostly small and usually booked up, so you will need to reserve your table, which you can do through your hotel. The Café Laurent in the Vedado neighborhood serves one of the best meals in the City. I can attest to that.

I close this posting on my birth city with all good wishes to those wanting to visit Cuba. Questions directed to me on this blog will all get a response from me. Happy Travels!

Rafael de Acha




Karol Szymanowski Piano Music

Preludes, Op.1, Etudes; Op. 4, Masques, Op.34; Mazurkas, Op.34.

Barbara Karaskiewicz, piano       Divine Art 21151

Listening twice to this CD’s 18 tracks with its running time of 67 minutes was intensely rewarding. At no point did monotony never set in, even though the nine preludes that make up Szymanowski’s opus 1 are quite similarly structured. But the variety of harmonic surprises, the sheer melodic inventiveness of the composer, even while maintaining his compositional focus on the traditional form of the piano prelude, kept this listener interested.

Writing prolifically during the first fifteen years of his life as a composer, Szymanowski defined his own style early on. In the Opus 1 preludes the Polish master explores polytonality and a sui generis harmonic language that was already being influenced by the opening of doors that was overtaking European music at the turn of the century in the compositions of Scriabin in Russia and Debussy in France.

By the time Szymanowski penned his Four Etudes, Op. 4 his style was evolving away from the lush Romanticism of Chopin that inevitably influenced him and other composers of his generation. The etudes are severely formal works in which the harmonies keep expanding unpredictably in the direction of dissonance.

Maski (Masques). Op. 34 is a musical triptych made up of three vignettes: Scheherezade, Tantris the Fool and Don Juan’s Serenade. Here we are clearly in a tonally ambiguous territory in which modality and oriental exoticism are at the core of the music.

By the time he was by his own admission “an old man” Szymanowski turned for inspiration to the folklore of Poland, writing about his lively Mazurkas in opus 62, “…the funny thing is that I write more and more bright music at my old age!”

Barbara Karaskiewicz is a pianist of rare gifts: always sensitive, assertive and powerful at crucial times, exquisitely handling the lyricism that abounds in these miniature gems. A specialist in the music of Szymanowski, she continues to enjoy a major European career.

As with all offerings by Divine Art, the album, recorded on July 2916 in Sosnowiec, Poland, is beautifully  mastered by Piotr Czerny, elegantly designed by Pawel Szczepanik, and thoroughly annotated by Anna Stachura Boguslawska.

Rafael de Acha




Stewart Goodyear plays for the Art of the Piano Festival in Cincinnati

Friday, June 2, 20017 at 7 pm, at CCM’s Werner Recital Hall.

Awadagin Pratt’s The Art of the Piano commenced this past Tuesday, but prior commitments kept me from going to their previous events. Tonight we attended Stewart Goodyear’s program, which included Baroque pieces by Orlando Gibbons and JS Bach, a Beethoven sonata, two Liszt warhorses and a couple of Ravel gems.

Stewart Goodyear has been developing an international reputation for his pianistic skills in a wide-ranging repertory. In tonight’s recital he proved his mettle, starting with a Pavane and Galliard, titled (and seemingly dedicated to) Lord Salisbury by Orlando Gibbons, an English composer whose music straddles the purity of late Renaissance keyboard pieces with the new harmonic explorations of the early Baroque.

Goodyear played delicately, preventing the deeper, darker colorations of the piano from overwhelming what was originally conceived for the lighter-voiced harpsichord, or perhaps the even brighter virginal.

J.S. Bach’s Partita no. 5 in G major, BWV 829, with its densely contrapuntal passagework is a test piece for any pianist. Stewart, always willing to allow the music to be at the forefront, was the dignified servant of the composition, playing with sobriety and elegance and never once imposing any interpretive eccentricities on the music throughout its seven dance-like movements.

Beethoven’s Sonata no. 28 in A Major, op. 101 is not among the notorious rabble-rousing compositions of the Bonn master. It is, instead, a rhapsodically lyric work that Beethoven asks to be played with heartfelt expression (innigsten Empfindung) from its first movement, marked quickly, but not too much so, through its resolutely faster second march-like movement, and on through the precisely marked and sentiment-filled third movement (slowly, but not too much so and with affection), finally climaxing in the optimistic concluding allegro.

Again, as in the Gibbons and the Bach, Goodyear’s playing was fervently intense, packed with emotion, responding to Beethoven’s directives yet remaining at all times in control of the intricacies of the music.

A welcome change of pace came in a Ravel group that included his Sonatine, a charming work written around the same time as the Basque master’s Miroirs. Goodyear humorously announced that he would substitute the programmed Alborada del Gracioso with Jets d’eau (from Miroirs) since Liszt’s Mephisto lurked around the corner, and two angry pieces one after the other was a bit much.

Goodyear, whose stunning French CD was reviewed elsewhere on this blog, played Ravel’s music with Gallic elegance and élan.

The Liszt warhorses alluded to in our opening paragraph came at the end of the recital, in a spot saved by Stewart Goodyear for the technical bravura pieces that are part of his formidable arsenal. The A-flat Liebenstraum got off to a quiet start redolent of the poem that inspired it, gradually developing into quintessential Liszt, with rippling cascades of notes in three separate inner cadenzas.

Inhabiting a demonic musical terrain, the A Major Mephisto Waltz is a mine field fit for fearless keyboard artists. Stewart Goodyear is one of those rare pianists: awesome in technical dexterity, unfailingly musical and stylish, balancing the impulses of a warm heart with the counsel of a cool brain. He entered the devilish world of the Mephisto Waltz and emerged triumphant at the end of a twelve-minute ride to Hell and back.

The audience would not let him leave, not even after a marathon two-hour recital, and so the generous pianist came back on stage with an encore: the treacherous final Allegro from Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23 in FC minor, Op. 57, Appassionata, played with the bravura to which Goodyear accustomed us all through this memorable Cincinnati visit.

Rafael de Acha




While I can’t think of many composers whose lives would be a suitable subject of a theatrical work, the life story of Johann Mattheson could be made into an opera or a play or even a good action movie. I only wish his music were as varied and compelling. Just imagine that he crossed both words and swords with his good friend George Friedrich Handel over a musical issue.

Unfortunately, after listening twice to three CD’s issued this year by the enterprising folks at Athene Records, a subsidiary of Divine Art Recordings Group I was left with a sense of numbing sameness achieved over almost three hours twice of dutiful listening.

Each of the twelve compositions are similarly structured: a brief introductory movement, often labeled Allemande or Ouverture is randomly followed by alternating fast, slow, fast, slow sections variously named Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, Menuet, and so forth. The structure of these suites is invariably correct, adhering to theoretical principles that the composer dutifully obeyed. But a sense of adventure and unpredictability is never present in the music of this neglected composer of the German Baroque.

The very fine harpsichordist Gilbert Rowland undertook the Herculean task of recording all twelve suites for harpsichord by Mattheson, and it is a pleasure to report that his playing is nothing short of excellent, restrained when sobriety is needed, brilliant when brightness is in order, always elegant and technically dazzling. A glance at the Divine Art catalogue will reveal that Rowland has taken a similar challenge with the suites for harpsichord by Handel. I would check that out.

As usual with anything issued by Divine Art, the production by Stephen Sutton and the boxed packaging are first class, the engineering by John Taylor is splendid, the multi-lingual liner notes by Gilbert Roland himself scholarly yet entertaining.

For the inveterate collector this set (ATH 23301) is well-worth acquiring (  Unless you are reviewing, I suggest doing the listening in a leisurely manner. When your time permits read up on this Baroque composer, singer, harpsichordist, organist, writer, linguist, diplomat, theoretician, swordsman and educator. I think you’ll like the music better.

Rafael de Acha