The Jupiter String Quartet magically plays Beethoven and Ligeti.

SnDJEKig.jpegThe Jupiter String Quartet delivers in a new Marquis Classics release a noble performance filled with gravitas that never lapses into self-importance.

One of Beethoven’s favorite quartets, the Op. 131 in C-sharp Minor, is  a late in life work that seems to embody in sound the composer’s ever untiring journey into still-to-be discovered musical territory.

Listening to the opening of the first movement, with the instruments entering one by one, the oneiric image of four persons entering a dense forest at night is brought to mind by the tonal vagueness of the composition. Marked C sharp minor the movement makes the musical path of the players all the more unsettling by laying down dissonance after dissonance that gets slowly and almost reluctantly resolved.

The Jupiter players, like the god of antiquity after which they name themselves are masterful at keeping their individuality even while entering the terra incognita of this composition. That entrance marks the beginning of a most unusual creation – a string quartet in seven sections that meld one into the next in at times brooding, later meditative passages that always refuse the players an easy way out of the all-encompassing density. Composed one year before his death at the age of 57, this quartet reveals a soul struggling to make peace with its creator though uncertain of what that might mean.

The second movement – a D major Allegro in 6/8 time that aims to be lively is still imbued with a melancholia that holds back every moment of mirth as if to remind the listener that its brevity is akin to that of our time on this planet: short and eventful. The third movement stuns with its blunt brevity and its tug of war between joy and pain all in the key of B minor.

What follows next is a fourteen-minute musical journey led by the first violin through seven diverse tempi in one key. An Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile segues to a più mosso, an Andante moderato e lusinghiero, an Adagio, an Allegretto, another Adagio, and one more Allegretto.

A restless Presto in Emajor, an Adagio in G sharp minor in ¾ time, and a straightforward, march-like though finally restful return to the original key of c sharp minor bring this monumental work to its precipitous, unsettling end after three quarters of an hour that symbolize the life journey of a human being from cradle to grave.

György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, “Métamorphoses nocturnes.” (Nocturnal Metamorphosis) completes the album with its compellingly harsh 20th century mix of tonal ambivalence contained in seventeen interconnected movements.

Its music calls for muscular playing and chameleonic changes of attack and intention and the Jupiter String Quartet astonishes with its magically virtuosic playing and its fastidiously meticulous musicianship in one of the finest albums this listener has heard thus far in this troubled 2020.

Rafael de Acha

Massenet’s Thaïs


In Jules Massenet’s Thaïs a monk attempts to convert a courtesan to a life of prayer and penance but discovers too late that his obsession with her is purely erotic. Eventually the courtesan dies while beholding a vision of angels that welcome her to eternal life while the randy monk collapses by her side.

That in roughly sixty words is what Thaïs is all about.

Its 1894 Paris premiere featured some naughty staging for the buxom soprano Sybil Sanderson, who during a suggestive seduction scene had a costume accident that revealed her to the baritone playing the saintly monk and to the opening night’s audience in her altogether.

The pesky censors quickly moved in and spoiled everything by demanding that Massenet excise the salacious scene. What was left until modern productions put the scene back in was a series of tableaux of monks praying, courtesans cavorting and very little drama.

In a recording all we can get is beautiful music while we try not to let our minds wander, and in this lovely recording we are regaled with the lyric soprano Erin Wall and baritone Joshua Hopkins doing all of the hard work. Both are fine artists and both are up against some heavy competition from still available recordings of this Massenet opus.

They fare well: Hopkins’ assured Voilà donc la terrible cité and Wall’s compelling Ô mon miroir fidèle, rassure-moi? are worth the price of the CHANDOS recording, which also features the famous Meditation and a couple of duets: Baigne d’eau tes mains et tes lèvres and a terrific final scene that Massenet has saved all along.

But at that point we have been preached to far too long by the tiresome monks, so much so that even Sir Andrew Davis’ conducting cannot compel us to stay awake much longer.

Rafael de Acha

Don César de Bazan


Jules Massenet’s 1872 (revised in 1888) Opéra-comique Don César de Bazan is a charmingly unpretentious affair, chockfull of that which Massenet does best: spinning lovely melodies.

Massenet was a late bloomer, as this lightweight work proves, written when the composer was thirty and actually his first full-length opera.

But catch up Massenet did, writing twenty-nine more works for the stage, among them two unarguably qualifying as masterpieces: Werther and Manon. The libretto is vintage Romantic melodrama, inspired by Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas.

The cast is top notch, with Laurent Naoury (a bass-baritone in reality) courageously tacking the high baritone title role and infusing it with humor. Soprano Elsa Dreisig is a charming Maritana, tenor Thomas Bettinger an elegant King Charles, and the honeyed voice mezzo soprano Marion Lebègue a standout in the trouser role of Lazarille. All four principals evidence the high standards of singing prevalent in French opera today

The haut de gamme Ensemble Aedes and the superb Orchestre des Frivolités Parisiennes are more than ably led by Mathieu Romano, who infuses Gallic panache into the proceedings.

The new NAXOS release is one of three Massenet works coming out this month. Up next Thais and Cendrillon, both of which we look forward to.

Rafael de Acha

Our last visit to Shanghai


After a short break, some time with our families, and a few weeks honoring contractual engagements, we returned home and started reading about Chinese history, the various dynasties, the cities, traditional customs, the opium wars, the concessionary period, Mao’s l949 Communist takeover—everything we could find about China.

We were preparing for our contract with Pearl Cruises to take the Pearl of Scandinavia as cruise directors on her first series of voyages to the People’s Republic of China.

When the time came we took the 36 hour flight from Miami to Sri Lanka to join company executives, officers, and senior staff members, who converged on the Hotel Colombo Oberoi to await the ship’s arrival.

The ship did arrive after several months of dry dock in Denmark. In spite of all the TLC that had been bestowed on her, she looked a bit worse for wear, homely, squat, and no one’s idea of a luxury liner.

Inside, everything was a work in progress. Cabins had bathroom appliances begging to be hooked up, beds clamored for mattresses, exposed electrical wiring dangled from every opening…

Calling her a luxury ship was a stretch.

However, the job gave us an opportunity to see in depth a country about which we knew very little.

Booking a cruise on the Pearl of Scandinavia offered a gateway to an eager pubic that wanted to visit China: celebrities, members of the news media, and wealthy Chinese families, longing to visit the homeland of their ancestors, were clamoring for space on board. These cruises were for people who had been everywhere else, and were willing to don their sensible shoes, endure the dust and pollution that was everywhere, and eat meals ashore that contained ingredients not easily identifiable.

We joined the passengers on overland excursions on trains and buses, slept in hotel rooms where silver fish ran in all directions when the lights were turned on and where eager-to-please room stewards entered our rooms without knocking to deliver boiling water for tea. Many times we awoke to find someone standing near our beds, looking at us as though we were rare zoo creatures they’d never seen before. At first this startled Kimberly and scared her, but it became so commonplace that we accepted it as normal.

During our time in China we watched incredible improvements taking place in the country. Highways sprang up where single lane roadways had always filled with bicycles. Modern hotels with Western conveniences seemed to appear overnight, and thermoses of boiling water for tea presented by unannounced chambermaids at bedtime or upon awakening were being replaced by breakfast brought in by room service.

We often joked that if China continued to progress at the rate we had witnessed during our time there we should definitely learn to speak Mandarin, because that would be the world language of the future.

While we were in China people were still wearing Mao jackets in black, grey, or navy blue, and it was still illegal for citizens to wear jewelry, and penalties for those with more than one child in the family were severe. But, changes were coming, and it was clear that China would be a major player worldwide very quickly.

Kimberly discovered a hidden gem in Shanghai. An elderly group of Chinese men who had once owned antique shops that specialized in everything from porcelains, calligraphy, watercolors, carved furniture, ivory, jewelry, and woven silks, had been allowed to remain as “approved experts in their fields.” Their shops had been taken over by the government, but they were housed together in a large facility, where they continued to share their years of expertise, along with tiny cups of boiling hot tea.

On her first visit, Kimberly had entered the cubicle of a very old and toothless man named Mr. Ma.

the eight inmortals

She spotted a porcelain depiction of Li Tieguai, one of the Eight Taoist Inmortals, and recognized him immediately. The crippled non-conformist, who was forced to travel through eternity, hobbling on his iron crutch, carrying a jug of water and herbs to minister to the needy and poor, fascinated her, and she inquired about it.

Mr. Ma’s response was not what she had expected, and it was rendered as a not-so-veiled insult.

In his heavily accented English, he said, “No worry. You rich. All you English very rich!”

Kimberly, sensing hostility, but not quite understanding the nature of his comment, politely corrected him by saying, “Did you say English? I am not English. I’m American.”

“Oh, I make big mistake. So sorry. So sorry,” he responded, and asked her to join him for tea.

She accepted, and from that moment on a wonderful relationship grew. Every two weeks when we docked in Shanghai, she would take a taxi to the shop, and for a few hours, she and Mr. Ma would visit, have tea, and offering his elbow, he would walk with her around the building, teaching her about the glorious items housed there, and sharing amazing insights.

Her interest in Li Tieguai had not gone unnoticed by Mr. Ma, and although the figure had disappeared from the display case, he would always greet her by saying, “You visit Mr. Li Tieguai today?,” to which she would always reply, “No, not today. He is so beautiful, but he is much too expensive.”

Although tempted to purchase lots beautiful things she saw, she always resisted, knowing that with a simple purchase, her relationship with M. Ma would be likely to change. Together, as teacher and student having tea, they were equals, but buying something from him would have cast her in the role of another rich foreigner.

In time, she came to fully understand his resentment of the English, and other Europeans who had divided Shanghai into territories during the concessionary period, and had turned the Chinese people into disrespected servants in their own country.

As Mr. Ma explained to her some time later, the Americans had only wanted access to the waterways, and had never occupied the country in the way European countries, and especially England, had.

Nanjing Road, the main street in Shanghai had been a dividing line between “countries.” If a person wanted to cross from one side of the street to the other, and enter the “other country,” one had to pass through customs with a passport, and unless Chinese citizens had work permits, they could not enter.

Signs up and down the entrance points stated, “No Dogs. No Chinese.”

When time allowed, I would accompany Kimberly to visit Mr. Ma. We came to believe that he was unhappy with the Communist regime that had confiscated his business and his home, and had never been able to make good on many promises of reforms and a better life.

Mr. Ma was especially resentful of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. One afternoon during one of their walkabouts in the store, he pointed to an intricately carved rosewood table. He explained that craftmen his family had known had been making the interlocking pieces of the table for over 600 years, using a secret to build the highly prized furniture. There were no nails, and once the piece was carved and its interlocking pieces were assembled, there was no way to dismantle it.

Suddenly he became extremely emotional. “The technique is lost forever. The furniture of my friend had always been favored by foreigners. During the Cultural Revolution, his furniture was labeled too Western. He was sent to labor in the fields for re-education. He was not a laborer. He was not strong to work in rice fields. He died there. Drowned in a rice field. For what? For what?”

With clenched fists, he raised his voice as tears welled up in his eyes, eyes that had been witness to so much. He turned, and quickly walked away. It was a stunning moment. Anger. Trust. Open defiance from a Chinese man well into his eighties, shared with a young American woman. He was highly educated, had great dignity, and had managed to survive regimes, turmoil and hardship that few could imagine, which gave him the courage to express his feelings. To this day Kimberly cannot talk about Mr. Ma without tears welling up in her eyes.

During their last visit, he greeted her one last time with “You visit Li Tieguai today?”

She had taken him cigarettes, some pipe tobacco, and oranges as farewell presents, and explained that we were leaving China, going home, and would not be returning.

After their tea, Mr. Ma went to one of his display cabinets, and crouching down to the lowest shelf with a great deal of effort, he produced the porcelain Li Tieguai she had seen on her first visit three years before.

“Today, I give you special price. Li Tieguai go with you to America,” he said, smiling a great toothless grin.

Not owning the antique or the store, he was in no position to gift it to her outright, but the price he quoted was so low that not to have accepted would have been an insult. He was offering what he could, and Kimberly had wanted it the moment she had seen it, and assumed it had been sold long ago. She has always suspected that he hid it away, waiting for the moment when he would give her the opportunity to have it.

lie tieguai

She gratefully accepted his offer, thanked him profusely, and Li Tieguai came home to live with us.

One of Mr. Ma’s last comments was, “Chinese people like Americans very much. No matter what governments say, the people remember, and you have friends here.”

Kimberly and Rafael de Acha


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: UDITE O RUSTICI  (The Elixir of Love – Donizetti) LA CALUNNIA (The Barber of Seviile – Rossini) MENTRE GONFIARSI L’ANIMA (Attila – Verdi) TARDO PER GLI ANNI (Attila – Verdi) with baritone Giangiacomo Guelfi as Ezio COME DAL CIEL PRECIPITA (Macbeth – Verdi) MADAMINA IL CATALOGO… (Don Giovanni – Mozart) NON PIU ANDRAI (The Marriage of Figaro – Mozart)



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


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

Gustavo Dudamel leads Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in Barcelona


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

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

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


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.

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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.