Back In July I posted some thoughts about the music of my compatriot Yalil Guerra, whom I had come to know in a roundabout way through both You Tube and Facebook.

After being in touch, Yalil sent us a couple of CD’s – one of which features the soundtrack of the PBS travelogue “A Weekend in Havana.”

About that CD, here are two brief comments echoing my words of a month ago, when I listened to several excerpts from it by way of You Tube: “some red hot music from his pen…” and “the deeply melancholy sound of another one of those Caribbean islanders who can’t quite get homesickness out of his heart.”

The title of the other album sent to us by Guerra is Guerra Works for String Orchestra, and the titles of its seven tracks hint at the deeply romantic undercurrent that runs just beneath the surface of this young composer’s music.

In El Retrato de la Paloma (‘The Portrait of the Dove’), an eighteen minute tone poem, the journey of the title’s dove is given alternatively sweeping, playful, ecstatic, elegiac and brisk music that depicts the journey from birth to flight to first love and to escape of a beloved symbolized by the winged creature of the title.

This poetically-driven work is set to music rooted in melody which in turn is supported by lush harmonies, engaging the listener yet never lapsing into sentimentality. Our composer now and then spikes up the musical narrative with moments of dissonance. He also gives the strings markings of sforzando on their lower range, perhaps to tonally depict the sharp obstacles a new life encounters in its various stages, and in so doing adding a dose of acidity to the mix.

The composition Guerra titles A la Antigua (‘In Olden Fashion’) is redolent with nostalgia; its elegant principal melodic theme, with its languid rhythm and minor key is evocative of a colonial Cuba of long ago where Creole composer-pianists held court in the salons of the Spanish aristocracy. But Guerra intertwines the seemingly placid surface of this music with momentary interruptions of dissonance, as if to remind the listener that this idyll would soon end.

Terra Ignota (‘Unknown Land’) is a substantial piece, clocking-in at almost nineteen minutes, replete with glissandi, pizzicato, and sul ponticello instances, along with sharp attacks for the upper strings in their highest register that pit them against the underpinning of the cellos and the single bass. It is music that inhabits a region where tonality is uncertain, motifs brief, and melody is buried in snippets that appear and disappear in an unpredictable sonic landscape where massive tonal clusters threaten the harmonic stability.

Old Havana bears no Spanish language title, perhaps as if to describe that other Havana of decades ago, one not altogether Cuban… a Havana that no longer exists. The briefest of the four compositions in this CD, Guerra’s closer for his album, is intensely emotional and eons away from the clichéd perception of Cuban music as an ever happy parade of hip-swaying rhythms.

Playing this music with awesome technique and intense musicality, the Ensamble Solistas de la Habana led by its committed conductor Ivan Valiente does more than well by the composer, delivering in a performance recorded live a flawless accumulation of artistic results.

Recorded mostly in the acoustically welcoming auditorium of the National Library of Cuba, and later mixed and mastered in California, under the supervision of the composer, this CD is available for download through most digital platforms.

Music available at: http://www.cdbaby.com/yalilguerra

Visit: http://www.yalilguerra.com

Rafael de Acha



Some composers advocate music pure and non-imitative, with no program, no agenda, and no mission other than to be music. The three works by Sigurðsson, Richter, and Vivaldi featured in the August 11, 2018 concert of the better-by-the-minute Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra are narrative creations in which music takes on a storytelling task.

Seven excerpts from Dreamland by Valgeir Sigurðsson occupied the first half of the cohesively planned program. Sigurðsson’s composition was created for a 2009 documentary film that deals with the impending ecological disaster Iceland faces, as its government sets out to dam several of that country’s pristinely preserved rivers to create energy for its aluminum industry. Sigurðsson’s score is hauntingly beautiful, some of it inspired by Icelandic folk songs.

Vivaldi’s set of four violin concertos, which he named Le Quatro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) and for which he even wrote some lovely poems, sadly fell into oblivion as the Baroque Era gave way to Classicism. Fortunately the Italian master’s four masterpieces eventually found their rightful place in the concert repertoire.

The choice of The Four Seasons could not be more refreshing given the wretchedly hot summer we’ve been having, and the further selection of Max Richter’s similarly titled re-composition of Vivaldi’s original is nothing short of brilliant programming.

Richter mines the contemporary sound vocabulary while overlaying, looping, quoting, manipulating and recreating some of Vivaldi’s cloudbursts, chirping birds and snowfalls in his own fashion. In a daring move, Eckart Preu programmed Richter and Vivaldi back to back, movement by movement, season by season in the same musical weather system, so that, within each of the four concerti, one per season, we heard Richter respectfully riffing on Vivaldi.

And then there was the musically inspired choice of soloist: Celeste Golden Boyer, the CCO concertmistress, a superb soloist in her own right. She played all the familiar movements of the four concertos with bravura, style and flawless technique.

For all our readers who will be in Cincinnati through the end of the month I encourage each and every one to take in one or more of the CCO offerings of off-the-beaten path repertory played with classy professionalism. If you have not yet been to one, beware that when you come you will be drawn back again and again.

Rafael de Acha



Bulgarian pianist Tania Stavreva is not to be pigeonholed.

In her CD, Rhythmic Movement available directly from her at http://www.taniastavreva.com the gifted young artist plays an eclectically mixed sampling of her own compositions in three of the tracks, gives over six tracks to the music of the Argentine Alberto Ginastera that features dances culled from his ballet, Estancia and from his Piano Sonata, No. 1, and further occupies the remaining tracks with compositions by her compatriots Pancho and Alexander Vladigerov, by the Russian Nikolai Kapustin and by the American Mason Bates.

The Vladigerovs – father Pancho and son Alexander – along with Kapustin and Bates – are all 20th and 21st century composers that have at different times straddled the worlds of folk music, music for the theatre, jazz, blues and concert music. So has Stavreva, a formidable musician who unfailingly negotiates the breakneck tempi of her composition Rhythmic Movement, later elicits from her instrument the eerie beyond-the-keyboard sounds of her brooding The Dark Side of the Sun, finds inspiration along the way in the music of her homeland, and passionately injects into her performances of all of the music in this intriguing album a cool contemporary sensibility, a knowing musicality, and an impressive pianistic technique.

Straveva subtly caresses the melancholy strains of Ginastera’s Danza del Viejo Boyero, lightly bounces off the keyboard to the bee-bop gestures of Mason Bates’ White Lies for Lomax, and finally dives-in heart and soul and sinews into the demanding eleven-minute set of variations on the Bulgarian song Dilbero Dilbero, by Alexander Vladigerov.

The production by Ron Saint Germain, the nice liner notes, and the uncluttered engineering of this engaging CD, along with its fascinating sampling of mostly unfamiliar music and Stravreva’s powerful playing, make it a top contender for a place in the library of any collector interested in music off the beaten path.

Rafael de Acha



Celeste Golden Boyer will take the solo violin part in Vivaldi’s The Seasons. 

Kimberly and I just got back from one of those days that makes one feel grateful to be living in Cincinnati, highlighted by a wonderfully crafted, curated, and played concert at the Taft (be sure to check out the Ansel Adams exhibition before it closes), helmed by violinist Manami White, with violinist Amy Kiradjieff, violist Heidi Yenney and bassist Tom Guth, with a few selections played by Eckart Preu, and cellist Coleman Itzkoff playing up a storm in a Haydn Divertimento. All of this was thematically linked by Jane Austen and the Regency period (that’s when George III went bonkers and they put his son on the job to keep things together…)

But you would not know bonkers from the music played today, which was a becalming mix of the well-worn (Beethoven, Handel, Mozart) with the obscure (Dalayrac …Pleyel…) But this is less than a review and more of a preview, so suffice for you to know that it was lovely and civilized, and that Summermusik has some gems in store up ahead.

Read on.

Tuesday August 7 @ 7:30 PM Chamber Crawl at Microbrass@ Fretboard – CCO Brass Section players, led by trumpeter Wesley Woolard sharing Mozart, Purcell, Monteverdi, Mascagni, Puccini, Wagner, Gershwin and Freddie Mercury (!) with guest soprano, Melissa Harvey.

Saturday August 11 @ 7:30 PM The Four Seasons Imagined – at the SCPA – Mind you, the opener is a world premiere of Draumalandið by Valgeir Sigurðsson (don’t even try to pronounce it) an Icelandic composer whose magically conceived music can haunt you for days.

Leave it to Eckart Preu to rattle our preconceptions: he is pairing this up in the same evening with Max Richter’s reinvention (!) of Vivaldi’s The Seasons followed by the…mmm…traditional one. Celeste Golden Boyer, the orchestra’s concertmistress will take the solo violin part, and the entire CCO will help us all forget this heat wave as they take us through Vivaldi’s spring rainstorms, snowy evenings and autumnal landscapes in nice weather music.

Sunday August 12 @ 4:00 pm The Carnegie in NewportPostcards from the Sky, with musical messages from Marjan Mozetich, Vivaldi (encore), Alan Hovahness, and Max Richter (encore) with Preu and Golden Boyer center stage.

And that’s just this week at Summermusik.  Tickets and information: http://www.ccocincinnati.org


Colman Itzkoff

By the time 1737 rolled around and William Boyce had landed his gig as Master of the King’s Musik, (to which he held on for a good twenty years plus), a lot of English musical water had flowed under the London bridges over the Thames. Handel was at the top of his game: toast of the town, favored protegée of King George, and powerful operatic impresario. Meanwhile William Boyce, part time composer, part time Anglican cleric, part time organist, had to let the older German-born Handel get all the fame and glory. Not fair, for Boyce’s music is lively, bouncy, elegantly English and just perfect to follow Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, in the opening concert of Summermusik.

With The British Invasion for its catchy title, the season opener neatly mixed the Baroque of Handel and Boyce with excerpts from John Lunn’s easy-listening score for the television hit show Downton Abbey. The first half of the concert climaxed with a heart-rending performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Inconceivably this music lay dormant for a number of years after its haplessly disastrous premiere. Thank Heavens Elgar’s composition has become a go-to piece for cellists.

The rapidly-rising, young virtuoso Coleman Itzkoff mined Elgar’s intimately personal score with utmost intensity yet never allowing his take on this music to wallow in sentimentality. His interpretation was dignified, notwithstanding the profound sadness of Elgar’s musical meditation on the indignities that befell him during the twenty years it took him to see his cello concerto go from idea to finished product.

Itzkoff, is a musician’s musician, possessing a cool brain and a warm heart with which he can penetrate with an even mix of restraint and abandon the density of Elgar’s composition, a thirty minute long test piece not for the faint-hearted.

Eckart Preu now triumphantly back for his second season as Music Director of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra led a stunningly cohesive, emotionally-charged performance, defining for once and for all that this indispensable ensemble and its enterprising maestro keep easy company with any chamber orchestra here or anywhere.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No 104, “London” was positioned by Maestro Preu at the end of the evening, perhaps as a nod to its being Haydn’s final symphony, the crowning glory of the composer’s London sojourn. Its pompous opening bars give no hint of the brilliant Allegro that is to follow: a fast movement that lets the timpanist – here the superb Scott Lang – do twice the work he does most evenings.

Again, and at the risk of overstaying my welcome, I join my fellow music-loving Cincinnatians in welcoming back the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and its maestro, Eckart Preu, in the music-deprived dog days of August.

Rafael de Acha



Gershwin asked Ravel for some feedback and was told, in a few words to go back home and write some Gershwin. Ditto for Astor Piazzolla when he studied with Nadia Boulanger, who asked him to write some more tangos and forget the other stuff. And as for Cuban music, the Caribbean island talents have been left off the VIP list ever since Manuel Saumell melded Cuban rhythms with European musical tradition and broke all the rules and regulations in the 19th century, after studying at the Conservatoire, no less.

And that was followed by Ignacio Cervantes and Amadeo Roldán and Alejandro García Caturla and José White and many others in our day and back in the day, who were labeled minor talents in the classical leagues, notwithstanding their major gifts. In a way, Ernesto Lecuona got invited to sit at the big table, by being wrongly seen merely as a salon talent. But poetic justice prevailed and his music has gotten more play than that of many of those who misjudged him.

And it is not only Latin American composers that come to mind here. Twentieth century American composers have successfully achieved a true American sound, as witness Charles Ives, Virgil Thompson, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein without once having to reach for any fancy label. So it is with a mix of pleasure and surprise that I listened to Cuban Memoirs (DE3535), a Delos CD of piano music by Andrés Alén.

In the Theme and Variations on a theme by Silvio Rodriguez, the first and longest of the tracks on the CD, the composer has fun and provides the pianist with the opportunity to have fun by playing a set of variations on a Nueva Trova ballad by Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez. The various takes on the straightforwardly simple melody range from a Bach-like mini-fugue to a handful of Cuban rhythms given an uptown flavor. But it’s not just the melodic surface that shines but the harmonic daring and the tongue-in-cheek aping of European forms with a good dose of Cuban funk attached to them for good measure.

245753_2125333 Through ten tracks, spanning roughly 54 minutes of playing time, the protean pianist William Villaverde (http://williamvillaverde.com) tackles and conquers the technical intricacies of Alén’s music. But that’s merely technique, and what matters in Villaverde’s playing are his soulful, quintessentially Latin interpretive gifts.

In the art of syncopating and playing off the beat, Villaverde is masterful, easygoing, joyfully off-hand. He sails through the six preludes by Alén without breaking a sweat, yet remains ever coolly elegant. The Danzón Legrand straddles the early 20th century high society dance with the French flair of a great composer of film music, and the substantial Theme and Variations on a theme by Pablo Milanés provides the satisfying ending to this treasure of a CD.

In all of this music William Villaverde excels by not merely conquering the technical twists and turns of the music but infusing the music of  Andrés Alén with the insights of a  kindred Cuban musical soul.

Rafael de Acha