Kindred Cuban Musical Souls

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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

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