Talking About Chiquinha Gonzaga…

Next week I travel to Charleston, SC, to give a presentation with songs about the Brazilian maestrina Francisca “Chiquinha” Gonzaga. Chiquinha’s music is timeless–people are still dancing and singing “O Abre Alas”, and musicians around the world play compositions that she wrote in the 19th and early 20th century. Chiquinha is considered the “mother” of Brazilian popular music. Along with Joaquim Callado and others, she mixed African rhythms with European music to create something new. She was a woman before her time–the first woman in Brazil to conduct an orchestra and she wrote over 300 songs and musical pieces. She was an original founder of the SBAT, Sociedade Brasileira de Artistas Teatrais, which sought to support playwrights, lyricists and composers. Chiquinha is also known for her political activism. She was an abolitionist and an in favor of a republic. Celeste Mann 3 29 17 lecture on Chiquinha Gonzaga (1)

“Me acerco y me retiro:” Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Set to Music

I rarely write about myself in my blog, but I have a concert coming up on February 12, 2017 in New York City and that’s my focus for the next week. The theme and title is “Amor Latino/Latin Love.” I’m performing this with two other singers, Celia Castro and Anna Tonna, and pianist/composer, Max Lifchitz. Here’s a link to an article about it:

This concert is exciting to me for a few reasons. First, the opportunity to work with such engaging and passionate artists, and to explore this theme in Spanish and Latin American music. Some of the works that will be performed come from Spain, but my music this time is all from Latin America. I’ll be singing Claudio Santoro’s Canções de amor (1ra serie) and two of Francisca “Chiquinha” Gonzaga’s songs. Both of these composers are Brazilian and I am looking forward to presenting Brazilian music for the first time in New York.


But this article is supposed to be about Sor Juana set to music. For the third time I’ll be performing the duet “Me acerco y me retiro” which is roughly translated as “I approach and then I back away.” This duet was written for Anna and me by Max Lifchitz.  Max is a composer/ pianist originally from Mexico. He’s made his home in the USA for a while now. We first performed the duet in a concert of art songs that we did for Cinco de mayo in New York in 2015, and again in November of 2015 in a retrospective of Lifchitz’ music.

Sor Juana is an interesting historical figure from the 17th century. Born in Mexico, which at the time was still part of Spain, she is probably the most important poet in its history. She was a brilliant woman, born ahead of her time. Too smart when women were not really supposed to be independent or intelligent. Little choices were available to such women, and they usually ended up stifling their intellect or joining a convent. Sor Juana ended up a nun, but was that really her desire?

Recently, channel 11 in Mexico has created a series about Sor Juana Inés, called “Juana Inés.” This series is now being played on Netflix, so there is a much broader audience. Here’s a trailer (in Spanish):

Me acerco y me retiro is an intense piece. As mezzo, contralto, and piano, we intricately weave the verse, mostly about an unrequited love, in melismas, consonant and dissonant harmonies and fierce piano interludes. Her poem ends (translation by Max Lifchitz):

A vivir ignorado
to live unobserved
de tus luces, me ausento
by your eyes, I now go
donde ni aun mi mal sirva
Where never pain of mine
a tu desdén de obsequio.
Need flatter your disdain. 


In addition to the duet, Me acerco y me retiro, there will be a premiere of Lifchitz latest composition based on Sor Juana’s poetry, called Rosa divina. This is a solo piece for a soprano with piano, which will be sung by Celia Castro.  I am hoping that with time these pieces, and others that Lifchitz might create, will give the world another glance at Sor Juana’s poetry in a different medium, through music.

Join us at the National Opera Center in New York City, February 12, 2017 3:00 pm (FREE!) or LIVE STREAMING online at

¿Música erudita mexicana? Sí, existe.

Cuando se piensa en la música mexicana, se suele recordar a la música popular o folclórica–los mariachis, las rancheras. Sin embargo, México tiene un legado de música de salón o música de arte. La exhibición en el Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo en Oaxaca, México, es una colección de capas de partituras musicales.


La exhibición comienza con la música de salón, con un piano y la música religiosa y secular característica de la clase alta. La exhibición muestra las partituras, algunos cuadros de temas musicales, instrumentos y escenas de miniaturas relacionadas a la música.


Los compositores más famosos de la música de arte (y del siglo XX) como Manuel Poncé, Silvestre, Augustín Lara y María Grever tienen partituras suyas en el último salón de la exhibición. También hay algunas partituras de zarzuelas mexicanas, y muchos tangos, polkas, valses y boleros.


Visitas a esta exhibición en el Museo de las Culturas (Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo en Oaxaca, México) están incluidas en la entrada general al museo. Es de $65 pesos, salvo el domingo, cuando la entrada es gratis para nacionales mexicanos. ¡No pierdan esta exhibición única! Para más información:



Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra at the Barnes: Mystical Connections

The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra is a professional orchestra based in Philadelphia, started by its conductor, Jeri Lynne Johnson, eight years ago in 2007. They presented “Through the Oceans of Time” on December 19, 2015 at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The orchestra consists of 40 members, and on Saturday evening they were joined by student instrumentalists of the Settlement Music School’s Trowbridge Chamber Orchestra, for this diverse musical program.  The Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra is to be commended for its outreach to the community and its mission to music education. According to the evening’s program booklet:  “The BPCO spends approximately 30 weeks each year presenting programs in Philadelphia public schools and community centers that offer young people the opportunity to engage with classical music.”


At the beginning of the concert it was announced to the audience that Dr. Barnes used to have a weekly lecture on music and art in the art galleries and that the night’s event was in the spirit of that tradition. For sure one can make connections and notice similarities between composers and visual artists (especially contemporaries), and paintings and musical works. In order to elucidate the connections among the musical works, Maestro Johnson gave a brief explanation before each piece. We, the audience, were also invited to browse and stroll through the galleries during the concert to further experience these linkages. Even though the Barnes has art by some of the most important impressionists and others (such as Cezanne, Renoir, Modigliani, Miró, etc.) very few people took advantage of this. There were maybe 3 or 4 people visible in the galleries during the musical performances but most stayed in their seats to listen up close.

Although I thought it was a seductive and different idea, I also felt that it would reduce the live music to accompaniment while viewing artistic masterpieces. Since I came to hear the music, particularly Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, for me it would defeat the purpose of attending a live concert–that it would turn the live orchestra into a soundtrack. In that case, I could just bring my IPOD and walk around the galleries and examine the paintings. That was not why I was there–I was there for the music.  Nevertheless, I recognize and applaud the effort to make these connections and add some layers to the viewing (of art) and listening (of music) experience.  These are highly technological times and many people have short attention spans–this multitasking approach to visual art and music might appeal to some!

The highlight of the evening for me was the last piece of the program by Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos–Bachianas Brasileiras  No. 9. After playing with aplomb, the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, and the very challenging Stravinsky Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks”, the orchestra launched into the hauntingly beautiful “Prelude” or vagaroso e místico (slow and mystical) of the Villa-Lobos piece. Villa-lobos gave a name to each movement with an explanation in parenthesis. The Prelude is almost 3 minutes long and then comes the Fugue, or poco apressado (a little hurried) which lasts about 6-7 minutes.  The sound of the orchestra is very lush and (neo) romantic in this selection.

Villa-Lobos uses counterpoint and fugue. These elements are also found in the other pieces in the concert, which are by Mozart, Bach,  Vivaldi and Stravinsky. That is one of their connections across time and space. Specifically Villa-Lobos is identified with Bach in the Bachianas due to these forms. But that is where the resemblance ends. This piece was originally written for voices, but later Villa-Lobos scored it for instruments. The Prelude begins with a chord and a sublime and poignant melody for one part. Throughout the prelude or “slow and mystical” the melancholy is evident. This invokes saudade, which is typical of the Portuguese musical genres, the modinha and the fado, which both influenced Brazilian music. So much of Villa-Lobos’ music is about nature. There are no words in this instrumental version, but the vastness of the Brazilian landscape is felt in the thick, multilayered sound and majestic gestures of the music–very different from the other works on the program.


This outstanding piece, expertly played by the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, was a strong ending to an entertaining concert, but I wished it wasn’t so short!

All in all, the orchestra, the youth ensemble, the soloists and the music director (conductor) distinguished themselves in a unique venue. There is something gracious and inviting about music in the museums. Even if we do not walk around in the gallery looking at artwork while the orchestra plays or the singers sing, the presence of the art and the beautiful surroundings, create a synergy with the music, the musicians and the audience. This is the ethereal connection over oceans of time and space. This is a connection that is a win win for everyone!


Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia (Photo by Smallbones)

For more information about the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra:

For more information about the Barnes Foundation:

A Grand Night for Singing: The Hispanic Society Presents Works by Enrique Granados

It was dark outside. By 5:00 pm in December the sun has set in New York City. Walking out of the subway at 155th Street, I was worried that I would get lost. The map on the wall in the station was of no help since the Hispanic Society wasn’t even listed. The one and only time I had been in this neighborhood was back in the late 1990s, visiting the Hispanic Society to look up zarzuela scores and libretti.

As soon as I reached the corner, my heart leapt as I spotted an image of the Goya’s Duchess of Alba on a sign. To my right, ahead, across the big avenue, I recognized the looming campus.  There is something about the design of this Beaux Arts building, along the Audobon Terrace–the walkway, the iron bars, that is so reminiscent of Europe, so Madrid.


By Asaavedra32 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

I was very excited to attend this concert  of Granados’ music–From Barcelona with Passion: Enrique Granados in New York, on December 10, 2015.  Two friends were singing, Anna Tonna and Gustavo Ahualli, along with soprano Anna Belén Gómez, Anna de la Paz (dancer), Diane Lesser (English horn) and Borja Mariño (piano). The concert had been advertised on Facebook since September, and “everybody” involved in Spanish music was going.


This was indeed a grand night of music, a unique retrospective of Granados’ pieces. Many of them were performed in their original versions for the first time in New York City at this concert. Aside from the passionate performances, what made this event different and special, was its venue. The exterior of the building is majestic. Inside it houses some of the most cherished Spanish artwork outside of Spain, as well as an archive of literature and music.


The performance took place in the interior courtyard. “Orchestra” seats were on the ground level and filled up fast. I arrived 20 minutes early and was seated near the back. The guest list was five or more pages of typed names and I wondered where they would put everyone if many of them showed up.  Once the first floor was full, guests were directed to the second floor, the “balcony,” where they had a view of the entire floor below of both performers and audience.


On both floors we were surrounded by priceless works of art and entranced by the Spanish atmosphere. The art, the architecture, and the music, combined to make this a fascinating and singular event. Even the reception included Spanish wines, a Rioja and a white. Our senses were stimulated and satisfied a la española. Did I mention all this was FREE?

For more details about the concert please visit Anna Tonna’s blog, Spanish Song Slinger:

Love Songs a la mexicana: An Evening with Max Lifchitz!

Up Close with Max On November 19, 2015 at the Flamboyán Theatre (Clemente Velez Soto Cultural Center) in Lower Manhattan, I join a group of talented musicians to interpret the work of Mexican composer, Max Lifchitz, as part of New York’s Latin American Cultural Week. This is my second time collaborating with Max. The first time was last May for a concert of Mexican Art song with mezzo, Anna Tonna. In that concert we presented some repertoire rarely (if ever) heard outside of Mexico. This repertoire was completely new to me. I had heard of Manuel Ponce and María Grever, but not Blas Galindo or Salvador Moreno, whose works intrigued me and compelled me to include them. For that concert, Max wrote a duet for Anna and me, called “Me acerco y me retiro.” Max set the poem of the same title by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. This love poem’s title, “I come close, and I retreat” makes a lot of sense since Sor Juana was a nun and any romantic endeavors would have been considered scandalous. Amor prohibido?  sor_juana_fielcopia-1

A duet for two lower voices, mezzo and contralto, is not the norm. Most duets between women are sopranos and lower voices (mezzo or contralto). Singing the contralto part to Anna’s mezzo is a very different experience as well. I’m accustomed to singing the lower part but always with sopranos. With a soprano/mezzo duet, the soprano sometimes has a more ethereal quality when floating above the staff. In this duet I feel like the contralto provides that quality–as well as the mystery. There is an earthiness to the low notes but also the sensation of a whisper or echo to the mezzo, because at the part of the range the volume will never overpower that of a higher voice.

I am equally enchanted by the love song “Eres tú” that I will sing on November 19. Max wrote both the lyrics and the music, and it is a simple yet poignant piece that speaks of a total, but perhaps idyllic love:

“Eres tú, siempre mi ilusión” (You are the one of my dreams)

Max employs images from nature, one of my favorite devices for depicting love in poetry:

“Por aguas, por tierras, por selvas y oceános”

By sea or by land, through jungles and oceans

“Corazón, bella como una flor” 

Heart, beautiful as a flower

This dramatic love is a journey through time and space, that ignores time and space, as it is complete and eternal. To be able to sincerely communicate such a feeling, this purest of sentiment, is my challenge for this special event — An Evening with Max!

For more information about the concert:

Beyond Art Song 2.0: El carro de amor

Convening an audience for an art song recital, or any classical music event, has become a challenge. With the elimination of arts education in many public schools, the audience that once learned to play piano, sing in choruses, and recognize the major artists/composers of Western art music, has shrunk considerably. Technology has also played a role in the shift in musical tastes and sizes of live audiences. No longer is one dependent on the radio or purchasing recordings to have access to new music. Nowadays one can surf numerous websites and online radio stations which offer free listening and in some cases free or cheap downloads. Orchestras and opera companies brainstorm constantly to develop and implement marketing campaigns to get “butts in the seats.” For recitalists, the audience is even smaller, and often they lack the funding, as well as the costumes, orchestra, household names and advertising to appeal to untapped audiences.

On Saturday, September 12, 2015, Ana María Ruimonte and Owlsong Productions were scheduled to present “El carro de amor,” a musical/theatrical show of baroque love songs, at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, as part of the Philly Fringe Festival. I was pleased to see this musical theatre piece among the various and diverse works in the Fringe Festival. There is no other Spanish language offering and very few classical music works in the festival. Unfortunately, the show started late because of technology problems and these issues persisted throughout the show.

El carro de amor employs hand puppets, computer projection and sound, as well as a live singer and instrumental ensemble. Regrettably, the show was plagued with technical difficulties throughout its duration. I definitely applaud Ms. Ruimonte for her perseverance—she attempted to deliver the performance as advertised. Had it been me, I would have completely given up the technology, and would have had to overcome nearly insurmountable jitters and nerves due to the technology issues and late start. This is more than enough to wrack (if not destroy) the most competent and confident singer’s concentration. Ms. Ruimonte performed under such duress and thoroughly embraced the saying “the show must go on!”

Aside from the technology issues, El carro de amor (includes songs from Ms. Ruimonte’s CD Arded, corazón, arded) is a very innovative effort in bringing obscure music, in this case baroque art song in Spanish, to a contemporary audience. The fact that this was mostly an American non-Spanish speaking crowd, further distances the listeners from the piece, making the performers’ job of communicating this music and its meanings twice as demanding. Ms. Ruimonte and Owlsong Productions did their homework as far as marketing, since the 80-90 seats were filled in the small venue. Ms. Ruimonte uses a laptop and projector to project images of Spanish paintings and photos onto a screen above the makeshift “love cart” that serves as the puppet stage. There is also recorded spoken dialogue piped through the computer to further create a context for these songs. Her creativity and design have launched a fresh approach to the song recital. It is as if her singer’s “backstory” or interpretation of each song is released from her mind and put on stage for us to witness in the puppet show.

Ms. Ruimonte and her husband, Alan Lewine (who also worked the puppets), were to perform another concert at 9:00 pm, “Mezzo Meets Bass.” Hopefully these courageous and imaginative artists had better luck with the technology in that production!

Poeta en Nueva York — Rafael Amargo

En el teatro del Generalife en la Alhambra de Granada (España) se presenta el espectáculo de flamenco de Rafael Amargo, que es una mezcla de danza, música, cante, poesía e imágenes. El ritmo y el espíritu gitano predominan en la obra pero también hay una fuerza creativa intrínsica. Esto paralela e imita el desarrollo de la obra poética de Federico García Lorca y su elevación del flamenco, ya que lo puso al nivel de otras artes españolas.

Lorca (1914).jpg
Lorca (1914)” by Unknown Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Este teatro no es puro flamenco. Hay escenas que representan aspectos más tradicionales de lo gitano como la boda y la improvisación, pero otras en que parte de esta tradición y la combina con otros estilos de baile e interpretaciones. De cualquier forma es un espectáculo vivo, dinámico y reverente a Lorca y el flamenco. El ambiente al aire libre de Generalife de la Alhambra contribuye al encanto de la experiencia. ¡Este es un show que no se debe perder!

Photo by Celeste Mann

Photo by Celeste Mann

Poeta en Nueva York sigue hasta el 29 de agosto (de 2015), en el teatro de Generalife en Granada. ¡Aprovechen y compren sus entradas ya!

Days in the Gardens of Granada (Translation of “Días en los jardines de Granada”)

Manuel de Falla, born in Cádiz, Spain, spent some of his last years living in a rented house in Granada with his sister. These days it is possible to visit the house, which is a repository of memorabilia and personal objects. The house is situated in an area that is somewhat hidden from the street, and it took me some time (and effort) to find it. According to the house’s guide, Falla wanted to be in a tranquil place where he’d be able to compose and listen to the sounds of water, and also be near the Alhambra. He didn’t want to be bothered by passerbys in the street.


The house is not big but it had spectacular views of the city, and enough space for Falla, his sister and their activities. There are bedrooms for both of them, a small kitchen, a tiny drawing room for tertulias with Falla’s artist friends, and a small music room which still houses his piano.

Photo by Celeste Mann

Photo by Celeste Mann

In his work “Nights in the Gardens of Spain,” one can hear the sounds of water in the piano part, especially at the beginning of the piece. There is a garden next to his house, and further up the hill, the park “Carmen de los mártires”, and La Alhambra, which are both full of gardens and water fountains.

Photo by Celeste Mann

Photo by Celeste Mann

Everyone knows about La Alhambra, and if not, it’s easy to find information about the palaces and buildings of this marvelous attraction–the old city of the sultan of Granada. However, few have heard of “Carmen de los mártires” before arriving in Granada.

Photo by Celeste Mann

Photo by Celeste Mann

Carmen de los mártires has a curious history. The current architecture was built in the 19th century, following the demolition of other buildings of random uses. For example, in the era of the sultans, nothing was there. It was just a hill. But it was located very close to La Alhambra, so they say that Boabdil (the last sultan of Granada) by way of this hill, made his to way to surrender to the Catholic monarchs on January 2, 1492.

After Boabdil had given them the keys to the city, Isabel la Católica decided to build an hermitage on this land. The Christians called this place “Corral de los cautivos” (The prisoners corral) in homage to the Christians held prisoner by the Muslims. Later, an order of the Descalced Carmelites arrived, and in 1573 they established the “Convent of the Holy Martyrs of Descalced Carmelites.” In 1842 the convent was destroyed and then the current palace and gardens were erected. In 1943 the complex was donated to the city of Granada and in 1944 they added the Nazarí patio in memory of Granada’s Muslim heritage.

Carmen de los martires, Granada. Photo by Celeste Mann

Carmen de los martires, Granada. Photo by Celeste Mann

The fountains and their flowing waters, are all around Falla’s house. Even today, with many more inhabitants and buildings than in Falla’s time, it is easy to see how the house’s location would inspire him. One just has to stroll along the paths of Carmen de los mártires and in the Alhambra forest to feel the beauty and tranquility–to imagine oneself in another world and in another moment.

Días en los jardines de Granada

Manuel de Falla, nacido en Cádiz, pasó unos de sus últimos años en una casa alquilada en Granada, con su hermana. Ahora es posible visitar la casa, que es un repositorio de recuerdos y objetos comunes de su vida. La casa se queda en una área un poco retirada y escondida de la calle y me costó encontrarla. Según el guía de Casa-Museo Manuel de Falla, Falla quería estar en un lugar tranquilo, donde podía componer y escuchar el agua, y además estar cerca de la Alhambra. No quería ser molestado por la circulación de personas por la calle.

Manuel de Falla con bastón.jpg
Manuel de Falla con bastón” by Archivo Manuel de Falla – ticket:2013012510007831 -> Archivo Manuel de Falla. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

La casa no es grande pero había vistas espectaculares de la ciudad y suficiente espacio y cuartos para Falla y su hermana, y para hacer sus actividades. Hay habitaciones para los dos, una pequeña cocina, una minúscula sala para tertulias con los colegas artistas de Falla y una sala de música que todavía contiene su piano.

Photo by Celeste Mann

Photo by Celeste Mann

En su obra ´´Noches de los jardines de España´´ se puede oir la influencia del agua en la parte del piano, especialmente al principio. Al lado de su casa hay un jardín, y más arriba el parque ´´Carmen de los mártires,´´ y la Alhambra, dos construcciones repletas de jardines y fuentes de agua. Todo el mundo conoce La famosa Alhambra, o si no, es fácil encontrar información y fotos de esta maravillosa atracción, antigua ciudad del sultán de Granada. Pocos han oído de ´´Carmen de los mártires´´ antes de visitar Granada.

Photo by Celeste Mann

Photo by Celeste Mann

“Carmen de los mártires” tiene una historia curiosa. Las instalaciones actuales fueron construidas en el siglo 19, después de otros edificios de usos distintos. Por ejemplo, en la época de los musulmanes, no había construcción, era apenas una loma. Sin embargo, se situaba muy cerca de La Alhambra, entonces se dice que Boabdil, el último sultán, salió por esa loma para renunciar ante los Reyes Católicos el 2 de enero de 1492.

Photo by Celeste Mann

Photo by Celeste Mann

Después de que Boabdil les había entregado las llaves de la ciudad, Isabel la Católica determinó que se debía construir una ermita en esa tierra. Los cristianos la llamaron “Corral de los cautivos,” en homenaje a los captivos cristianos que fuero encarcelados por los musulmanes. Más tarde llegó una congregación de Carmelitas descalzos y en 1573 se establecieron el “Convento de Santos Mártires de Carmelitas Descalzos.” En 1842 el convento fue destruido y luego fue construido el palacete actual. En 1943 el complejo fue donado al Ayuntamiento de Granada y en 1944 adicionaran el patio nazarí para recordar la herencia musulmán de Granada.

Carmen de los martires, Granada. Photo by Celeste Mann

Carmen de los martires, Granada. Photo by Celeste Mann

Las fuentes y sus aguas fluyentes circundan el territorio por la casa de Falla. Aun hoy, con muchos más habitantes y edificios que en la época de Falla, es fácil ver y percibir como la ubicación de la casa le inspiraría. Es solo caminar por las veredas de Carmen de los mártires y el bosque de La Alhambra para percatar la belleza y tranquilidad–además imaginarse en otro mundo y otro momento.