CONCERT MUSIC IS ALIVE AND WELL IN TODAY’S CUBA – PART ONE IN A SERIES

Having just recently come into contact with a number of Cuban musicians I am becoming more and more impressed by the number of extraordinarily gifted instrumentalists, conductors, and singers I have met on line.

Camerata Romeu

We have all admired for many years the glories of Cuban popular music. I, for one, have been listening to Cuban pop singers going all the way back to Maria Teresa Vera and Benny Moré and the Trio Matamoros of my grandfather’s era… But what reminds me every time I encounter one of these young Cuban talents of today is that the field of music in today’s Cuba is rich and diversified, with quite a number of orchestras, chamber music groups, Early Music ensembles, choral groups, and lyric theatres operating in Havana and throughout the island, affording a number of these young artists the opportunity to practice their craft.

Let me share with you the following four samples.

Bryan Lopez Gonzalez, a superb lyric tenor with a terrific top voice and enormous musicality was trained in  Cuba and took his first steps in his birth country, rising up to star status through his frequent appearances in operatic productions fresh out of  conservatory. He is now in Europe, waiting to kick-start his young career while still in the limbo brought about by the current pandemic. Young and good looking and earmarked for the big time, here he is, delivering a very elegant Un aura amorosa from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte in performance at the Festival della Valle D’itria 2016 in Martina Franca, Italy.

Camerata Romeu is an all- women string orchestra considered by many to be the first and the best of its kind in Latin America. Founded in Havana in 1993 by its director Zenaida Romeu, its style is accessible and easy, with its rank and file made up of pretty young women perfectly coiffed and dressed to the ninths. But it is the musicianship, the technique and the artistic finesse this talented group and their leader exhibit and the polish they bring to the playing Cuban and Latin American music that ranks it world class. Here they are in an undulating version of a soulful Cuban guaguanco: https://youtu.be/d11NGffLcYU

Ars Longa is a terrific Early Music group that features five singers, among them Yunié  Gainza a superb countertenor and seven instrumentalists. Listen to them in a New York appearance performing the 18th century Cuban composer Esteban Salas’ “Vayan unas especies” https://youtu.be/_hFGxvWhKzM

Another Early Music group is the Villa Clara-based Conjunto de Música Antigua Ars Nova here playing a composition by another Classical Cuban composer, the 19th century-born Cratilio Guerra Sardá, during the Tenth Festival de Música Antigua de La Habana

Ars Longa

LA MÚSICA DE CONCIERTO ESTÁ VIVA Y BIEN EN LA CUBA DE HOY: PRIMERA PARTE DE UNA SERIE

Después de haber entrado recientemente en contacto con varios músicos cubanos, estoy quedando cada vez más impresionado por el número de extraordinariamente dotados instrumentistas, directores de orquesta y cantantes que he conocido.
Muchos de nosoros hemos admirado durante muchos años las glorias de la música popular cubana. Yo, por mi parte, he estado escuchando a cantantes cubanos de música popular algunos de los cuales se remontan a la época de mi abuelo tales como la gran María Teresa Vera y el inolvidable Trío Matamoros y otros mas cercanos a mi tiempo, tal como Beny Moré .

Pero lo que me maravilla cada vez que me encuentro con uno de estos jóvenes talentos cubanos de hoy es que el campo de la música en la Cuba actual es rico y diversificado, con un buen número de orquestas, grupos de música de cámara, conjuntos de música antigua, grupos corales, y teatros líricos que operan en La Habana y en toda la isla, ofreciendo a varios de estos jóvenes artistas la oportunidad de practicar su arte.

Permítanme compartir los cuatro ejemplos siguientes:

Bryan López González, un excelente tenor, con una voz aguda sin limites y dotado de enorme musicalidad se formó en Cuba y dio sus primeros pasos allí, ascendiendo a la categoría de estrella recién salido del conservatorio a través de sus frecuentes apariciones en producciones operísticas.

Ahora está en Europa, esperando poder poner en marcha su joven carrera mientras todavía permanece  en el limbo provocado por la actual pandemia. Joven y guapo y destinado para un gran carrera, aquí se le escucha cantando una muy elegante Un’ aura amorosa de Cosi fan tutte en el Festival della Valle D’itria 2016, en Martina Franca, Italia.
https://youtu.be/6-G5N3nmxFA

Camerata Romeu es una orquesta de cuerdas totalmente integrada por jovenes mujeres y considerada por muchos como la primera y la mejor de su tipo en América Latina. Fundada en La Habana en 1993 por Zenaida Romeu, su estilo es accesible y fácil, formado por jóvenes perfectamente peinadas y vestidas con gran estilo. Pero es la música, la técnica y la finura artística que este talentoso grupo y su líder traen a la música cubana y latinoamericana lo que clasifican a esta notable orquesta en primera clase.Aquí están en una ondulante versión de un guaguancó cubano: https://youtu.be/d11NGffLcYU

Ars Longa es un excelente grupo de Música Antigua del Barroco que cuenta con cinco cantantes, entre ellos Yunié  Gainza, un excelente contratenor, y siete instrumentistas. Escúchenlos en una aparición neoyorquina interpretando del compositor cubano del siglo XVIII Esteban Salas’ “Vayan unas especies” https://youtu.be/_hFGxvWhKzM

Otro notable grupo que se especializa en  Música Antigua es el Conjunto de Música Antigua Ars Nova, con sede en Villa Clara. Los encontamos durante el Décimo Festival de Música de La Habana interpretando una obra de otro compositor cubano clásico: Cratilio Guerra Sardá, nacido en Santiago de Cuba en el siglo XIX.

MOZART Y MAMBO CUBAN SABOR AND MOZARTIAN ELEGANCE BEST OF 2020 Sarah Willis with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra

Sarah Willis, a horn player with the Berlin Philharmoniker, arrived in Cuba some years ago to teach some master classes to young musicians.

Enamored with the warmth of the people of the island she has since gone back there to visit and make music with fellow artists. Combining the music of Mozart with the popular music that is alive and well and thriving in the Caribbean nation, MOZART Y MAMBO has just been released by ALPHA.

Sample: https://youtu.be/XeQKXjONFKA

It is a result of an unpredictably successful collaboration between Sarah Willis and the superb Havana Lyceum Orchestra and its magisterial young conductor Pepe Méndez.

The CD includes alongside Cuban music of the 50’s though the 90’s, Mozart’s Concerto no.3 and the Rondo for Horn, K371 alongside the whimsically titled Rondo alla Mambo, Sarahnade Mambo, and a Cuban Eine kleine Nachtmusik all three familiar Mozartian tunes injected with a good dose of spicy Cuban salsa.

What could have turned into a mere gimmick has instead produced felicitous results thanks to the excellence of the participating musicians and the straightforwardly honest approach to the music at hand.

This gem of an album joins my list of BEST OF 2020, as it defies categorization merely inviting the listeners to set aside preconceptions and listen to a cool mix of the Austrian and the Cuban, and swivel their hips to hot, sensually sinuous tunes by Perez Prado, Ibrahim Ferrer, and other Cuban old time icons played with a mixed combination of Cuban sabor and classical elegance by Sarah Willis, saxophonist Yuniel Lombida, trumpeter Harold Madrigal, pianist Jorge Aragon, and the enormously versatile Havana Lyceum Orchestra led by Maestro Méndez.

Rafael de Acha

https://youtu.be/XeQKXjONFKA

UNEXPLORED BRAZILIAN MUSIC

Seresta (Portuguese for forest), a rhapsody for piano and orchestra in three movements by Brazilian composer Camargo Guarnieri features the excellent pianist Olga Kopylova, with the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo led by Isaac Karabtchevsky.

In three compact movements: Decidido (decisively), Sorumbático (somber), and Gingando (swaying), the composer achieves a multitude of colors in a densely-orchestrated work rich in unpredictable multi-tonal twists and turns, surprisingly inventive harmony, and, in the first and last of its sections unrelentingly-driving rhythmic pulsation.

A work by Guarnieri a largely unheralded composer outside his native Brazil, this composition and the others in this album provide an entrance into the world of a 20th century Latin American master. Guarnieri’s Paulista (São Paulo) roots define him aesthetically as Brazilian in his soul, yet European in intellect, his music deeply influenced by some of the French masters with whom he studied at the beginning of his career.

The two-movement Chôro (Portuguese for “cry”) for Bassoon and Orchestra affords Alexandre Silvério an opportunity to deftly shine as soloist in a composition that begins with a slow Calmo (calmly) and then breaks out into a rhythmically intricate Allegro that is immediately followed by the lengthier Chôro for Flute and Chamber Orchestra, a work-within–work in which the peerlessly musical flautist Cláudio Nascimento shares the musical heavy-lifting with his bassoonist colleague Silvério in a hauntingly moody composition evocative of an otherworldly Brazilian musical landscape.

Throughout these quintessentially Brazilian chôros the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, led by maestro Isaac Karabtchevsky proves the ideal partner, claiming stage center at moments, self-effacingly supportive at others.

Violinist Gavi Graton excels in the tri-partite Chôro for Violin and Orchestra, ostensibly the most concerto-like of all three of the works in the album. In the first and second movements the soloist asserts his presence from the very onset with his handling of Guarnieri’s expansively melodic lines, against which the chamber orchestra provides passages of quiet support often alternating with massive fortissimo outbursts. Graton then engages in an intricately rhythmic dialogue with the ensemble that leads the final movement of the work to a riotously concluding finale.

Naxos must again be saluted for its enterprising venture in the largely unexplored yet fertile field of Brazilian concert music.

Sample: https://youtu.be/ygRvvq78Iok

Rafael de Acha

GUITAR MUSIC FROM SPAIN, MEXICO and CHINA

The Concierto de Aranjuez is the opening work in this lovely album about to be released by NAXOS. The familiar work by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo is exquisitely played by virtuoso Junhong Kuang

When Brazilian composer Heitor Villalobos met in 1920’s Paris his Mexican counterpart composer Manuel Ponce – both then young men in their thirties – he expressed strong feelings of commonality in both their efforts to mine the folklore of their individual birth countries. Much of Ponce’s music is that and more: a joyous celebration of all that is Mexican in music, elevated to the status of concert compositions.

Ponce’s 1941 Concierto del Sur (Southern Concert) takes a different artistic route by paying homage to the music of Spain – Asturias specifically – in a richly melodic work originally created for Andrés Segovia, masterly played here by Junhong Kuang.

The traditional three-movement concerto structure is brilliantly put to work by the composer, opening with a stately Allegro, followed by a straightforward Andante, and concluding with a filigreed filled Allegro Festivo that gives the work a celebratory ending.

Hong Kong-born composer Gerald Garcia’s China Sings expressly composed for Junhong Kuang is a brief two-movement rhapsody that, like its companion compositions in this CD taps into folkloric roots – Chinese in this case – with splendid results.

Junhong Kuang creates a variety of colors in his playing of the opening Dark Sky, Silver Clouds and in the second movement, Silver Clouds across the Moon, at times making his instrument sound like a Chinese Pipa.

The Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice led by Darrell Ang provides perfect partnership to the soloist throughout this remarkable NAXOS release.

sample: https://youtu.be/6ke_ugLEkp8

Rafael de Acha

ELGAR FROM AMERICA

SOMM announces Elgar from America, Volume II featuring three historic performances from the 1940’s by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and conductors Malcolm Sargent and Arturo Toscanini at the helm of the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Menuhin is heard here in a 1945 performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, followed by Elgar’s Cockaigne Concert-Overture.

Toscanini leads the Introduction and Allegro for Strings joined here by NBC Symphony Orchestra principal violinists Mischa Mischakoff and Edwin Bachmann, violist Carlton Cooley, and cellist Frank Miller.

Elgar’s music is that of a steadfast Romantic holdout, structurally traditional, with – to the ears of this listener – no hint of any kind of influence from whatever many other composers of his time were writing. But his gift for melody is great, and he regaled the interpreters of his compositions with accessible, often tuneful, and showy music that would inevitably elicit ovations from the listeners and reward its players for their hard work.

Menuhin delivers an impassioned performance with a remarkable full sound undoubtedly enhanced by the limpid re-mastering by audio restoration engineer Lani Spahr. The playing in the violin concerto and in the other two compositions that fill the album is sweepingly grand, boldly broad, and typical of the style that was the trademark of both the NBC Symphony Orchestra and of the 29 year old Yehudi Menuhin, a masterful violinist already at the peak of his powers.

Rafael de Acha

BRAZILIAN PIANIST CLELIA IRUZUN IN A STUNNING PERFORMANCE BEST OF 2020

SOMM Recordings is releasing a fascinating album (SOMMCXD76) featuring two late-19th-century Romantic Piano Concertos: the familiar Fifth Piano Concerto in F major, “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the unfamiliar yet enormously impressive G minor Piano Concerto, Op.10 by Saint-Saëns contemporary, virtuoso pianist, composer, and personal friend, the Brazilian Henrique Oswald, whose Piano Concerto was composed before Saint-Saëns’ Fifth.

Both concerti are replete with mind-boggling technical hurdles which the formidable Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun elegantly tosses off and then balances with passages of exquisite lyricism in a stunning performance that also boasts the solid support of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra superbly led by Dutch maestro Jac Van Steen. The production and engineering are both vintage SOMM.

A rare treat – Brazilian composer Alberto Nepomuceno’ four-movement Suite Antiga is included in the album, affording the listener the opportunity to enjoy a 19th century Brazilian take on an 18th Century European Baroque construct played with utmost delicacy by a major pianistic talent.

Rafael de Acha

DIVINE LITURGY

From DELOS, a new release: Divine Liturgy by the composer Komitas, offers a rare sampling of the liturgical music of the Armenian people.

The hour-long work – performed in this recording by the superb Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Klava – introduces the listener to the hauntingly exotic music of the 19th century priest and multi-talented musician Soghomon Soghomonian, known in his country by his given priestly name of Vardapet Komitas.

Widely regarded as a pillar of Armenian music and revered by his people as a national hero, Komitas survived the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire only to tragically die in a Paris mental hospital.

Komitas composed music imbued with Eastern melody, intriguing harmonies, and complex counterpoint. His uncanny gift for exploring how choral singing can induce a state of deep spiritual calm eventually conducive to reflection and religious ecstasy is present in this one of a kind album, beautifully produced, engineered and annotated by DELOS.

Originally created for an all-male choir, this recording arranged for a mixed choir will deservedly begin to divulge the glories of this music from the remote Republic of Armenia to a wider audience than the congregation of faithful for which it was originally conceived.

Rafael de Acha

MUSIC FOR VIOLIN AND VIOLA – Davide Alogna & José Adolfo Alejo

Available online for purchase or streaming on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon Music, Deezer, and Google Play) and for physical purchase from  www.brilliantclassics.com MUSIC FOR VIOLIN AND VIOLA features two singularly talented artists.

Playing the music of Spohr, Halvorsen, Bruch, Manuel María Ponce, and Mozart, Italian violinist Davide Alogna and Mexican violist José Adolfo Alejo are joined by the Mexican ensemble Camerata de Coahuila, led by Ramón Shade.

This album brings together two superb instrumentalists who set out to investigate the abundant yet rarely explored duo repertoire for their instruments.

The results are splendid.

Seven works, among them Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, Louis Spohr’s Grand Duo, Max Bruch’s Double Concerto, and Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a theme by Handel occupy multiple tracks, each worthy of attention.

Davide Alogna and José Adolfo Alejo together mine for musical gold throughout the entire program, playing elegantly, stylishly eliciting multiple colors from music written over two centuries, and all the while negotiating technical hurdles without any trouble.

The Mexican ensemble Camerata de Coahuila, led by Ramón Shade provides the two soloists peerless support in the grandly Romantic Double Concerto of Max Bruch.

The recording is perfectly engineered by Brilliant Classics.  

We look forward to more from these two artists.

MUSIC BY CHRISTOPHER ROUSE PLAYED BY NASHVILLE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

When I first heard a work by the late American composer Christopher Rouse – a performance of his symphony no. 6, his last – I wrote “… the now somber, now nervous, now agitated, now elegiac tone says with rare profoundness what mere words cannot begin to convey. In four movements, the sections of Rouse’s slow-fast-fast-slow structure segue into each other episodically — moments of reflective stasis contrast with blunt agitation, evoking life’s vicissitudes. Massive tone clusters from the large brass section, augmented by startling percussive outbursts, are suddenly juxtaposed with passages of eerie near stillness underpinned by jittery activity in the lower strings. Cantabile passages and peaceful soli for woodwinds alternate with massive statements from the amassed orchestra.”

Heaven forbid I should be taken to imply that Rouse repeats himself as I repeat my year-old words in the context of this review. On the contrary, this composer’s gift for finding unpredictable sounds from instruments often taken for granted thanks to his uncanny genius for orchestrating is more than ever before present in this remarkable performance of three works, including the impressive Symphony No. 5 by Christopher Rouse with the enormously gifted Giancarlo Guerrero leading the superb Nashville Symphony Orchestra issued by Naxos.

Supplica, an inspired composition brief in duration, serenely beautiful, leaning towards tonality while not altogether abandoning the freedom that Rouse’s free-wheeling use of atonality and polytonality provides the composer, gives the listener a welcome oasis of tranquility before the Concerto for Orchestra, where once more the composer demonstrates his ability to fearlessly take the listener from restlessness in tempo and melody lines to pockets of mysterious quiet.

This listener can think of no other composer in our time who can so enticingly transport us into music of such other sonic worlds.

Rafael de Acha

A GORGEOUS 20th CENTURY COMPOSITION BEST OF 2020

Commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Manfred Honeck, the ensemble’s superb Music Director, Jonathan Leshnoff’s  beautiful Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon affords PSO principals Michael Rusinek (clarinet) and Nancy Goeres (bassoon) the opportunity to shine as soloists in this gorgeous 20-minute-long, three-movement composition.

Leshnoff’s music is unabashedly accessible. From the onset of the composition the composer establishes a bucolic, dreamy tonal landscape that at once engages the listener with the ebb and flow of its melancholy utterances.

First the bassoon then the clarinet, alternate in a quiet dialogue built on a short melodic motif that is gradually echoed by the orchestra. It is a haunting entrance into the world of this concerto and its composer.

But soon and early in the movement the tranquility of the beginning is briefly interrupted by a climactic outburst from the orchestra, only to soon return to the opening mood of the movement.

Less-than-three minutes in duration the humorous second movement is set to a waltz tempo. The music is elegant, at all times playful, capitalizing on the bassoon’s grumpy lower range, with the clarinet reminding its fellow woodwind brother to stop grumbling, which it does abruptly.

The third movement is all agility and syncopation, giving the soloists a workout in its rapid ascents and descents alone and in tandem. Suddenly the mood changes into a brief cantabile passage for the clarinet to give it center stage. Then the up and down antics of the two solo instruments resume their good-natured competition.

Now it is the bassoon that commands the attention, the way the clarinet did earlier in the movement. The activity increases as does the technical demands on both players, the entire affair careening towards an unpredictably blunt ending.

I am tempted to name this work as one of the most intriguing 21st century compositions this listener has ever encountered, for which huge gratitude is due to Reference Records, to Maestro Manfred Honeck and his Pittsburgh players, to the two superlative soloists – clarinetist Michael Rusinek and bassoonist Nancy Goeres, and most of all to the immensely gifted Jonathan Leshnoff, from whom we beg for more gems like this one.

We entreat the reader to get hold of this wonderful issue, either as a CD or as a download so as to enjoy in addition to the Leshnoff Double Concerto, a noble, bold, exhilarating performance of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 4 in F minor, opus 36.

Honeck drives the impulsiveness of the Russian master’s cri de coeur composition with an uncanny mix of fury and heartbreak, profound pathos and ultimately with a glimmer of the hope that allowed the composer to live through the innumerable vicissitudes that plagued his personal and professional lives.

This recording is already in my short list of BEST OF 2020.

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