COMING TO STUDY WITH ITALO TAJO

In the fall of l966, I was back at Juilliard to start my second year. One Saturday, as I was leaving the New York Public Library at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, I approached the entrance to the Seventh Avenue IRT, and stopped at a news-stand. My eyes fixed on a small English magazine, Opera.

Hoping to buy it, I reached in my pocket to be sure I had a subway token. No such luck! I didn’t have enough money for it and the subway, so I picked it up for a quick look. In a section called something like “Who, What, When and Where” the name of Italo Tajo jumped off the page.

I then read a notice announcing that Tajo, a singer I greatly admired, had been appointed to head the Opera Department at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.

I dug into my pocket and pulled out the one dollar I had, bought the magazine and headed uptown on foot. At age 23, I was not fazed by the prospect of walking the 80 + uptown blocks to Claremont Avenue, near Broadway and 122nd Street, where I lived at International House, across from the Juilliard’s old location.

The brisk autumn air and the walk gave me clarity and time to think. In spite of the training I was receiving, and the gratitude I felt for being in such a prestigious school, I had often found myself fighting depression and loneliness. New York was cold and grey and I felt isolated.

By the time I finished dinner and got to bed that night I had resolved to somehow get to Cincinnati to study with Italo Tajo.

Early the following Monday I telephoned Cincinnati and the operator connected me to the desk of Martha Moore. In her charming Southern accent, she informed me that the school would be holding its annual New York auditions the following week, and asked if I would like to have an audition appointment.

“I would like that very much,” I replied.

The following week I went to the Baldwin Piano Studios in New York and sang for two people: Dean Jack Watson and Robert K. Evans, who accompanied me as I sang the same two arias which had been my lucky ticket to Juilliard two years before: Vecchia Zimarra from Puccini’s La boheme and Madamina (the Catalogue aria) from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

After I sang, I was interviewed by Dean Watson. He first asked why in the world I would want to leave Juilliard where I had a “full-ride” scholarship, half-way through my second year.

My answer was straightforward: I wanted to study with Italo Tajo. I thanked him and Mr. Evans for their time, and left.

The acceptance letter came a week later. I would be the recipient of a full-tuition scholarship and a living stipend for room and board, courtesy of the Corbett Foundation.

Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, and now Cincinnati, a fourth home in my new country. That December I returned to Los Angeles for another Christmas with my parents, before flying to Cincinnati to begin the next chapter.

My first impression of the Queen City was not all that favorable—especially the weather. Cincinnati can be a nasty business when Mother Nature deems it so. Cold, damp air coming from the Ohio River, with lots of snow, ice and smog in those days, all was a recipe for sinus infections and nasty coughs, which I managed to acquire almost immediately.

I was told that was the usual “rite of passage” for a newcomer—especially one arriving in January. I had just been in Southern California, away from the Frozen North, and had forgotten how the sunny days and balmy breezes of Los Angeles reminded me of Havana. But, this was where I wanted to be, cold weather or not, and somehow I knew I had finally found the place where I was destined to be.

The University’s Dean of Men who owned the three story house on Scioto Street where I would be living for the next few years met me there and helped me settle in.

The house was at least 100 years old, and judging from the elaborate staircase, floors and woodwork, it had been, at some point in its history, an elegant single-family home. My apartment consisted of the entire first floor: a large living room with a huge couch and some dilapidated old furniture, and a non-working fireplace with an ornate carved mantel. There was also a bathroom with a big tub and a hand-held shower that took some getting used to. And, there was a large eat-in kitchen with some pots and pans and dishes, a desk, a wall of built-in storage, and a bed in the corner.

It was certainly unconventional, but, since coming to the States, this was more living space than I’d had anywhere else, and since there were several tall windows that filled the rooms with as much light as could be had, depending on the weather, my bachelor pad began to feel more and more like a real home.

C-CM was in the process of building a brand new complex on the main campus, and the building was nearing completion, but it was not quite ready to welcome classes. Voice lessons took place near campus on a side street filled with a series of WWII Quonset huts that sheltered some old Baldwin pianos and little else. Opera workshop was taught in a large room in the Student Union. Recitals and concerts were held anywhere on campus where a piano with 88 workable keys and some folding chairs could be had.

The Italian opera star turned voice teacher was in his mid-fifties when I met him. Italo Tajo had had an international career, singing leading and supporting bass roles in every major opera house in Europe and in the United States. He had made his debut at age 20 as Fasolt in Wagner’s Das Rheingold – years before most basses appear in leading roles, let alone as Wagnerian giants. At the time when most male singers would have been in their prime, Tajo had already lived and sung through a 35 year career of constant singing on large stages, and the fast pace had taken a toll on his health, not to mention his love of women and vino and pasta.

When I met him for the first time, I was taken aback by his physical appearance. In photographs, Maestro had the dashing looks of a movie star. His six-foot-plus, broad frame was compromised. He was suffering from severe gout, looked thin and appeared much older than his age – he was only 51 and he was walking aided by a cane.

What I saw that day did in no way dampen my enthusiasm or admiration. If anything, it increased my respect for an artist who was still pushing ahead and had a lifetime of experience to share. We spoke in Italian, and, within days I became Tajo’s translator-interpreter-assistant and, after meeting his wife, the lovely, loving Inelda, I was welcomed as a member of their extended family of students.

Cincinnati agreed with the Maestro, and by the end of that first year, he was standing upright, surrounded by his admiring students, looking vibrant and years younger. And, it wasn’t long before James Levine, another Cincinnatian, spotted him and lured him back to the Metropolitan Opera, where Tajo enjoyed a new version of his career, singing character roles to the delight of MET audiences. He continued to do that for several years, but he never lost his love for teaching and directing at C-CM.

Here is a sampling of his singing throughout a long career, ranging from his Attila and Banquo through his Figaro, Dulcamara, Leporello, and Don Basilio:

https://youtu.be/p1LHLZoNd0c UDITE O RUSTICI  (The Elixir of Love – Donizetti)
https://youtu.be/kXe24kShvwE LA CALUNNIA (The Barber of Seviile – Rossini)
https://youtu.be/KaAEwFWXtGc MENTRE GONFIARSI L’ANIMA (Attila – Verdi)
https://youtu.be/-LPpzMPEr4E TARDO PER GLI ANNI (Attila – Verdi) with baritone Giangiacomo Guelfi as Ezio
https://youtu.be/aYKCvmYymV0 COME DAL CIEL PRECIPITA (Macbeth – Verdi)
https://youtu.be/6KnQWL3BP9s MADAMINA IL CATALOGO… (Don Giovanni – Mozart)
https://youtu.be/8Vqpx0rh1W0 NON PIU ANDRAI (The Marriage of Figaro – Mozart)

A COMPOSITIONAL RENAISSANCE

yalil

In his new and aptly-titled album, Renacimiento (Renaissance) Yalil Guerra, the Cuban-born composer, now residing and working in Southern California allows us to listen to another aspect of his multifaceted talent in a collection of chamber music works, ranging from several inventively charming ensemble pieces for woodwinds to an extended ten-minute homage on the piano to Guerra’s mentor and friend: the Cuban master composer Aurelio de la Vega.

In his Homenaje a Aurelio de la Vega, Yalil Guerra achieves an improbable but extraordinary goal of combining atonal asperities with a harmonic, melodic and rhythmic language redolent of the kind of Cuban salon music that Ernesto Lecuona and, before him, Ignacio Cervantes wrote.

The composition is structured as a series of miniatures in different tempi and moods, much like the brief piano pieces of Anton Webern. The overall effect is compelling and often enticingly melodic even within the strictures of atonality, as is the Toccata for piano that follows.

La magia de tus ojos (The magic of your eyes) shows Guerra’s deeply Romantic vein, writing idiomatically for solo violin.

Afrodita is a brief rhapsody composed in a lush harmonic language for string orchestra, with the young composer in full command of the intricacies of orchestration.

Al Partir (At farewell) is also a piece for string orchestra, where the composer achieves a hypnotic effect by having the violins play with little or no vibrato while the cellos anchor the single movement quietly in the background. The music ebbs and flows and quietly vanishes at the end.

With this new album, available on Spotify and iTunes, Yalil Guerra reveals to the listener a yet new facet of his protean gifts.

Rafael de Acha                    http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.c

Piano rarities by Beethoven contemporaries

095115212820

Joseph Johann Baptist Wölfl was an Austrian first rate pianist and also a neglected composer whose Piano Sonata in E Major, Op. 33, No. 3 opens the new and notable CHANDOS album of works by contemporaries of Beethoven. The entire program is played to perfection by pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

A Keyboard Sonata in A Major, Op. 50, No. 1 by the Italian-born English subject Muzio Clementi, whose elegant classicism exerted a significant on Beethoven himself, is next, again played with Gallic insouciance by Bavouzet.

The Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 20 of the Austrian Johann Nepomuk Hummel shows a musical world in transition with one foot of the composer firmly planted in the Classical world of Mozart and Haydn and the other tentatively dipping itself into the turbulent waters of 19th century’s early Romanticism.

I avow no prior familiarity with the name or music of the Czech composer Jan Ladislav Dussek, whose intriguingly-titled Élégie Harmonique is a two-movement piece with an opening Adagio that Bellini or Chopin could have tossed off, and a second-part Allegro that would test any pianist’s interpretive mettle.

Throughout the album, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays elegantly, sensitively, and with rock solid technique.

In an insightful program note, the protean French pianist observes: ‘Just as a mountain peak is always surrounded by other perhaps less lofty but no less fascinating summits, the major works of Beethoven are not isolated rock formations rising from the desert, but, as it were, “Himalayas”, forming part of a range in which other mountains might be the best pieces by contemporaries such as Clementi, Hummel, Dussek, and Wölfl. These composers all knew Beethoven well and were in contact with one another. It is essential to know and to make known their music in order better to understand and more thoroughly appreciate the lingua franca of the music of the time, which in turn is part and parcel of the “spirit of the age”, and to be aware of that which unites them, as well as to recognize that which differentiates them and renders each unique. In this year of plentiful Beethovenian commemorations, it appears to me natural, indeed essential, to pay admiring and enthusiastic homage to these composers, each of whom, in his own way, followed his route to the summit.’

The album is a worthy addition to the music library of anyone fond of the unexpected discovery in music for the keyboard.

Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

Gustavo Dudamel leads Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in Barcelona

OIP

A CMajor/Unitel release [Unitel802808, DVD; 802904; Blu-ray] features as very fine performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” filmed at Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana last year.

Gustavo Dudamel leads the superb Munich Philharmonic and the equally exceptional choirs of Orfeó Català and Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Música Catalana. The splendid vocal soloists are mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford and soprano Chen Reiss.

A lengthy composition that runs close to have ninety minutes but never overstays its welcome, the five-movement symphony is a mature work to which the composer initially attached a program that depicted a narrative to accompany the music. Mahler later got rid of it but the spirituality of the title and the text of the vocal music from the fourth movement – Urlicht – and the final Die Auferstehung reveal the inspiration behind the music.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford uses her silky voice to good effect in Urlicht and soprano Chen Reiss brings a silvery, shimmering quality to the music and words of Die Auferstehung: “With wings which I have won for myself, In love’s fierce striving, I shall soar upwards To the light which no eye has penetrated!”

Gustavo Dudamel draws a noble performance from his orchestral and choral forces, remarkably conducting the entire score by memory in this treasure of a collector’s item.

Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

Familiar and lesser known Dvořák

dvorak In a new installment of the SWR Classic (SWR) series dedicated to Antonin Dvořák’s symphonic works, the German Radio Philharmonic Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern led by the fast rising young Finn Pietari Inkinen, shines with a crystal clear, unmannered approach to the Czech Master’s Sixth Symphony in D Major.

Often referred to as Dvořák’s “first” because of its date of publication, the work shows complete command of the form on the part of its composer along with the quintessentially Czech flavor of so many of Dvořák’s mature compositions.

The classically-structured four-movement symphony has a running time of approximately 45 minutes. Beginning with an optimistic Allegro – all sunshine and open fields – the symphony segues to a moody Adagio abundant with unpredictable changes of tone that alternates restless passages in minor tonalities with restful returns to the D major key of the entire work.

Never lacking in inventiveness, the third and shortest of the movements – marked Scherzo – is vintage Dvořák – a lively Furiant with an alternating 2/4 to 3/4 rhythmic pattern that momentarily lets the woodwinds provide a respite before the entire ensemble heads for a big finish. The final Allegro – grand and noble of gesture – allows the orchestra to go full-throttle into a furious climactic ending.

The impeccably-produced and engineered album also contains three intriguing lesser known works: the Hussite Overture and the overtures to Selma Sedlák (The Cunning Peasant) and Vanda.

Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

Cuba’s racial mix: black beans cooked together with white rice

LAUGHTER

As Cuba grew from Spanish colony into sovereign nation, it took its share of the tired, poor, hungry and huddled masses of the world, and amassed them in its capital, giving them shelter and work, and letting them co-exist at will, wherever they could, with whomever they would.

There were China-born Chinese and their Cuban-born children, that Cubans awkwardly called “chinitos” (little Chinese), no matter their age. There were Central and Eastern European immigrants, many of them Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Russian Jews, who had migrated to Cuba in two waves, the first around 1913, and the second around 1939 that in a mix of ignorance and malice, some Cubans called “polacos.”

While the city may have struggled with its identity as a melting pot, our home did not. Within my parents’ circle of friends, there were Blacks, Mulattos, Lebanese, Jews (later giving themselves the nickname “Jewbans” in the Miami exile), Russian émigrés, and European-born University of Havana professors.

A casual walk down any part of Havana in the 1940’s would allow one to gaze into a sea of faces of every hue and type, like a platter of the white rice and black beans comfort food that many Cubans favor.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the early days of the Republic, Havana was already an ethnically-rich city, but one often separated into a Jewish Havana, a Chinese Havana, a Spanish Havana, and a Black Havana.

By the l950’s, Havana teemed with a racially mixed population, nearing one million people that represented nearly 20% of the total inhabitants of Cuba. There was a mix of Blacks, Caucasians, Asians, Middle-Easterners and their descendants living in Havana and in some of the larger cities. Chinese from Hong Kong had married Mulatto girls from the interior of the country and immigrants from the Basque Country had married Cuban-born girls of French extraction.

And yet there were the social clubs: a Basque Center, a Galician Center, and various societies for people from the Canary Islands, Asturias and Catalonia all of them white folks from the continent who had gown Creole roots in Cuba during the 18th and 19th centuries, all the while trying to stay racially pure. Typical of more recently arrived immigrants yet still uncertain about their new home, Basques continued to mix with Basques, Gallegos with Gallegos, and Catalans with Catalans. There was also a large American colony, whose members mingled mostly with each other. They were in Cuba to do business with Cubans, not to break bread with them.

By mid-century, Havana was well on its way to becoming a cosmopolitan hodgepodge. But the higher they moved up the social ladder, the more some white Cubans of the Republican years wanted to forget the dark-complexioned grandmother who had given birth to the child of their white, green-eyed Spanish Grandpa.

However, nothing represented the diversity of Havana’s growing metropolis more than food. Gourmets, gourmands, and aspiring aficionados of exotic food and drink were never hungry or bored in the Havana of my youth. You could go to a Chinese- run ice cream parlor, and enjoy ices made with guava, mango, prickly pear, tamarind or mamey. Farther down the street, if still hungry, you could buy peanuts in a paper cone or a tamal wrapped in corn husks, sold to you by an ebony-black man with white hair, whose Ivory-Coast born grandparents had probably known slavery before 1868.

One could eat one’s way from Shanghai to Warsaw just walking around the city. In Old Havana, there was a Kosher Dairy restaurant where, in my teens, I had my first taste of matzo ball soup and potato knishes. Less than a mile from our home, at the corner of 23 and 12 Streets, you could have a ten-cent frita, the Cuban version of the American hamburger. And, one could walk down to the corner and buy some sliced ham or dried codfish imported from Spain, at the neighborhood bodega run by a gruff Galician with a thick moustache.

Whether you were the boss or one of the workers from the assembly line out for lunch, there would be a place where for as little as a 25-cent peseta, or for as much a one peso, you could get a decent meal.

If one was of drinking age one could have a beer at the counter of a bodega before moving on to the next errand. Later in the day one could take a break at one of the open-air cafes in the center of the city, and sip an aperitif or cafe con leche served by a waiter with an exotic accent, maybe Italian or Portuguese.

My parents celebrated the diversity that was a part of their own story, and part of the country of their birth. The way they lived, their friends, and the environment all around us, were giving me glimpses of a bigger world—one filled with many cultures, many languages, and many different ways of thinking. I was learning valuable lessons that would help me survive and adapt to change sooner than anyone could have imagined.

JONAS KAUFMANN AS OTELLO

otello

When it comes to casting the title role of OTELLO there is a long history of missteps and compromises. There’s also the discussion that takes place with the arrival of a new candidate for the killer role of the Moor, with each generation musing on the past glories of the Otello of their youth: Domingo and before him Vickers and before him Del Monaco and before him Vinay and then those of the eras of which our parents and grandparents spoke in awed tones.

As comparisons can often turn odious let us not succumb to comparing the principals of the excellent new SONY release of Verdi’s next to last opera with those of recent memory, as memory almost always turns to be erratic. Let us instead evaluate these formidable singers on their own merits and not by comparing theirs to those of others.

The mere fact of operatic life is that tenors for the role of Otello don’t grow on trees, so that we have to accept whatever we get. And what we get from Jonas Kaufmann – at the age of 51 a dramatic tenor at the top of his game – is an artist of uncommon sensitivity with the vocal equipment to surmount the perils of a score chockfull of them.

Act II is off to a fine start thanks to Carlos Alvarez’ superb Iago: chillingly venomous, vocally secure, intelligently handling Boito’s text. By the time we get to Otello’s Ora e per sempre Kaufman walks through a vocal mine field that he traverses unscathed. Alvarez always injecting subtlety as in Era la notte saves his vocal arsenal to match Kaufmann decibel by decibel in a stunning Si pel ciel.

The young Italian soprano Federica Lombardi is a marvelous Desdemona, possessing a crystalline voice ideal for the role of the guiltless young wife. Her contribution to the final scene and to the earlier duet with Otello and the Council scene ranks her as a major artist to watch.

The supporting cast is very good, with both mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez a fine Emilia and tenor Liparit Avetysian a better than good Cassio as standouts.

Always supple and at the ready to hold things together while supporting the singers, Antonio Pappano is the ideal Verdi interpreter, summoning fire and brimstone from his Santa Cecilia forces when needed and at other times eliciting delicate, shimmering playing never better than with Desdemona’s music.

The SONY release ranks for this listener as one for our BEST OF 2020 lineup.

Rafael de Acha http://www.musicnotes.com

HAVANA IN MY MEMORY

Havana is the city where I was born and where I lived and grew up until I left Cuba. It was a home, a place, and a world – all three—holding me as an all-too-willing captive of its embrace. La Habana was held fast by an ocean that surrounded the island with a constant ebb and flow that kept one in the arms of the Motherland.

BAY OF HAVANABut an even stronger force was the call of the unknown beckoning from just beyond the horizon, summoning in me the wanderlust that eventually defined my story in the world beyond the waters of the Caribbean. For me, that vast body of water was not so much of a barrier separating me from the unknown as it was a waterway that led to a different place, a liquid landscape on which I dreamed I could actually walk all the way to that land beyond the sea, ninety miles to the North.

My hometown felt vibrant and clean, filled with sun and the welcoming smells of Cuban cooking being prepared in kitchens, wafting from the open windows, along with music being played on radios and record players, and the laughter and voices of the rapid-fire speech of variety show announcers, being broadcast on newly purchased TV’s.

Adults moved purposefully to and from their jobs, the fragrance of jasmine and gardenias that bloomed near peoples’ front doors filled my lungs. School children on foot, or on the their bicycles, rushed to and from school, and elegantly dressed old matrons, on their way to or from daily Mass, drenched in Bal a Versailles or Joy left a scented trail that lingered long after they had walked by.

As a child I heard conversations that described Cuba as the most sinful, most troubled, and most politically corrupt of countries in Latin America. But in my youthful eyes, I saw Havana not as most sinful, troubled and corrupt  but  as the most exciting, most inviting, most vibrant, and most beautiful of all cities in the world.

A ride on a streetcar down to the Malecón, the long seawall promenade that links Havana from the Bay in the East, to the mouth of the Almendares River in the West that divides Havana from upscale Miramar, followed by a leisurely stroll along Havana’s dramatic shore line, was always a perfect outing. Even on the hottest summer days the smell of salt and sea air forever in one’s nostrils and the ocean breeze always managed to bring relief.

Again and again, there was that climactic walk, experiencing the one-of-a-kind moment: realizing we were right at the edge of the ocean. To me it felt like the edge of the world. The sounds of seagulls, and the waves splashing against the sea wall, reminded me that we were islanders, surrounded and equalized by the sea all around us, with a magical world lying just beyond where the eye could see.

Long after I returned home from those perfect afternoons, my mind would continue to imagine what might lie just beyond the horizon: a land I wanted to know. Growing up, encircled by that deep blue water, filled me from early childhood with a profound love of the ocean, and a pervading longing for what lay beyond it. That feeling became a constant, embedding in me a life-long wanderlust.

Rafael de Acha

An excerpt from my memoir HOME LOST: HOME FOUND which I hope to publish sometime soon.

Theodore Wiprud’s Wind of Many Voices

OIP

Just like the changing North, South, East, West winds to which the ancient Greeks respectively assigned the names of Boreas, Notos, Eurus, and Zephyr, endowing them with the sometime beneficent, sometime deadly, and often capricious attributes of minor deities, so do the moods of Theodore Wiprud’s compelling composition Wind of Many Voices morph by way of tempi, harmony and orchestration ever depending on which way the wind blows in the context of this intriguing work’s programmatic musical narrative.

Auspiciously opening with a noble brass fanfare and ending abruptly, Wiprud’s 17-minute tone poem follows its own compositional path, avoiding atonal clichés and abundant with sudden changes, gradual crescendi that build up to deafening climaxes only to then vanish into moments of moody quietude, dramatically abrupt stops and starts, and surprisingly brilliant touches of orchestration. Short snippets of melodic motifs give way to dissonances, massive cluster chords and unpredictable harmonic changes creep up only to scurry away.

Wind of Many Voices is given a superb reading by the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Delta David Gier in a Soundcloud world premiere recording available on the composer’s website: http://www.theodorewiprud.com 

Rafael de Acha   http://www.Rafael’sMusicNotes.com

TREASURE TROVE OF SPANISH SONG

Bright Shiny Things release IF THE NIGHT GROWS DARK [BSTC-0140, CD], is a treasure trove of Spanish songs arranged for guitar and voice by Graciano Tarragó, and exquisitely performed by soprano Camille Zamora and guitarist Cem Duruöz.

The album includes works by sixteenth-century composers Juan del Encina, Cristóbal de Morales, and Miguel de Fuenllana, along with traditional songs from Andalusia, Galicia, Asturias, Canaria, Salamanca, Castile, Catalonia, Mallorca, the Basque Country, Santander, and Extremadura.

Throughout the impeccably engineered album, the two artists make magic with their honestly straight forward approach to the music. With their easy back and forth musical dialogue, with Zamora’s perfect diction  in Castilian, Catalan, Gallego and Basque, and a supple, clear voice perfectly suited to this music, and Duruöz’s elegantly idiomatic playing, he two artists deliver musical gems throughout the entire duration of the album.

Rafael de Acha’s MusicNotes.com