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.
The magnificent Theatro Municipal de São Paulo is beautiful and tastefully adorned.
In comparison with Rio de Janeiro’s opera house, (Theatro Municipal do RJ) it is simple in its decoration, lacking the mix of ostentatious styles and materials based on the French opera houses. After all Rio was the capital at the turn of the 20th century, and experiencing its Belle epoque.
What distinguish the São Paulo theatre are its coffee leaf designs and the famous “X”, as symbols of the coffee industry. The Theatro Municipal was also the site of the “Semana de Arte Moderna” (the Modern Art Week) that happened on September 7, 1922, one hundred years after Brazil gained its independence. The Modern Art Week revealed new artistic styles and movements and defined the Brazilian modernist spirit.
The arrival of the coffee industry in São Paulo inserted thousands of immigrants into the state at the turn of the 20th century, and funneled revenue and construction into what would grow to be South America’s largest city and financial capital. Coffee was previously cultivated in Rio de Janeiro, but later plantations sprung up in São Paulo, once the railroad construction began. By the 1880s, planters were already seeking immigrant workers, as the push for the abolition of slavery was strong, but the work conditions were poor and European immigrants often returned home. Japanese and Italian immigrants, especially, came to Brazil to work en masse after slavery was abolished in 1888, except some of them had no idea where they were going to live or what exactly they were going to do. Nevertheless, from this industry arose a culture and the great metropolis of São Paulo, home today to nearly 12 million inhabitants and descendants of settlers from all corners of the earth.
Like the other stunning concert venue, the Theatro Municipal, the building that houses the Sala São Paulo, was also financed by coffee money. However, the hall was not in the original construction plan of the early 20th century, and the concert hall was not built until the 1990s. The Sala São Paulo sits inside a train station that was originally completed in the 1930s! Coffee barons constructed this station, which is a five minute walk from another, the Estação de Luz. The Estação de Luz has much more train traffic, but the other station, Julio Prestes, is still active, with one or two lines. The coffee symbols are visible in the floor design and the Xs in the decoration of what were once the waiting rooms in the Julio Prestes Station. The paintings on the windows also contain scenes from the coffee industry.
The Sala São Paulo is really spectacular. The railway station is currently partly functional but there was never a real need for a station so big. The coffee industry never utilized as many trains that had been expected, and the people in the area did not need two full stations in the same neighborhood. The acoustics of the Sala São Paulo are fantastic. It also has a ceiling that goes up and down to change the acoustic depending on what kind of concert is taking place. This is a very rare luxury in a concert hall. The music world should be grateful to the coffee industry and its barons for this marvel of a venue!
A man walks out and sits down. He begins to riff on an acordion. Other musicians come on stage with their instruments– a bass, a violin. The percussionist sits down at the drums. A white digital piano–a miniature baby grand, stands downstage in the corner. What next?
Having only seen one Brazilian musical before (a revival of Chiquinha Gonzaga’s FORROBODÓ last year in Rio de Janeiro), I really did not know what to expect from POUR ELISE–other than some kind of rendition of Beethoven’s masterpiece, FÜR ELISE, some time during the play. FÜR ELISE is a favorite piece given to any young pianist, and is easily recognized by most classical trained musicians. For sure it evokes romance and longing and all of the drama that we think of when we think of Beethoven.
Cláudio Goldman, the composer of this musical, weaves the musical leitmotiv, based on Beethoven’s piece, into a tightly knit narrative based on his grandparents’ lives. Elise is a singer and Sbig a pianist. They meet in Poland before World War 2 and later in Brazil, where they are united. Elise is Sbig’s true love. Throughout the musical, we hear some of opera’s top hits. They are performed either with the original lyrics in Italian, or with Portuguese adaptations which fit the storyline.
Although the opera excerpts do work in this story, it is funny to experience them because they invoke the originals, and the contrasts with Sbig and Elise are not quite what those composers had in mind. For example, the Duke in RIGOLETTO, who sings ‘La donna é mobile¨is a carefree playboy who loves seducing women. The Don Giovanni of ¨La ci darem la mano¨ in DON GIOVANNI, shamelessly brags about being the worse cad in opera who has ravished hundreds of innocent damsels across Spain. Zerlina, with whom he sings the duet, is a naive country girl he is bent on having. Considering that Sbig is never portrayed as a ladies man, it is ironic (and almost ridiculous) that he invokes these characters. In addition, ¨La donna é mobile¨ is used when Elise dumps him and returns to her husband. He is the victim in this case, not the woman. Elise is portrayed as a worldly woman and she is the one who is married and having an affair with Sbig. The ¨ Brindisi¨ (Libiamo) from La Traviata is also sung in POUR ELISE, as well as the enigmatic Gynomopedie by Satie, another ‘greatest hit’ of Western art music . Goldman adds Portuguese lyrics to this, which he sings quite poignantly.
The play is very tongue in cheek and you just cannot take it seriously. Elise is portrayed as an absolute caricature until the very end, when she is dying. All of a sudden she becomes a real person. This is an interesting dramatic choice. Is the rest of her performance/characterization, just a memory, therefore the stylization–is it her parting that is so precious and heartbreaking for Sbig, that the way Elise is presented must be transformed to drive the point home?
In addition to this musical montage, there are projections onto a screen, which serve as backdrop, set and character. Visions of war, as well as clips and/or references to films such as CASABLANCA, SCHINDLER’S LIST and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK are made. If you know these movies and the operas, this musical is a lot of fun. The older Sbig, breaks the 4th wall and speaks to the audience as narrator, recounting his past. Cláudio Goldman plays the younger Sbig, and he shows remarkable versatility with the opera selections and the more popular music of the show.
If one is not that familiar with the music, POUR ELISE provides a ‘taste’ of opera without the grandiosity of a full orchestra, stratospheric high notes (all the soprano’s parts are transposed down), ears being pinned back by the sound (it is all artificially amplified) or 3-4 hours trying to understand a foreign language.
Kudos to Mr. Goldman and Flavio de Souza for blending the erudite and popular, and serving it up in one hour full of laughs, yet with reverence for the immigrant and Jewish experience.
See POUR ELISE: Um amor inesquecível at Teatro Folha at Shopping Higienópolis. http://patiohigienopolis.com.br/teatro/78-pour-elise
The enthusiastic audience filled the grand living room, seated on the floor and on chairs in the balcony. Some stood in the back, spilling into the kitchen and the hallway, and on the steps of the loft. A big picture window that spanned the entire wall behind the performers, looked like the realistic backdrop of a stage. Glimpses of another time, of a Philadelphia night of yesteryear, framed the musicians.
Andrea Clearfield, founder of the Philadelphia Salon, was the mistress of ceremonies. Short and thin, with dark curly hair and dancing eyes, she happily introduced the evening’s performers and the pieces. She started the Salon over 25 years ago, and every last Sunday evening of each month, musicians and lovers of music, have gathered in her home to hear new and old music performed by local and regional performers.
I had been to the Salon a few times as an audience member, but this was my first time performing. I was a bit nervous. I was to sing three of Francisca “Chiquinha” Gonzaga’s songs—Romance da princesa, Santa and Lua branca. Reese Revak, my accompanist, was to play Gaúcho (aka Corta-jaca) one of Chiquinha’s most popular maxixes. (Brazilian tango). This was the first time most, if not all of these people would hear Chiquinha’s music. I had sung these songs out west last year, but to a mostly Brazilian audience. Of course, they understood, they knew. But now, Chiquinha was about to make her debut in Philadelphia–some 80 years after her death.
I felt that Andrea’s Salon would be the perfect place to introduce Chiquinha’s music to Philadelphia. After all Andrea, just like Chiquinha, started as a classical pianist and began to compose her own music. Like Chiquinha, “saraus” (salons) were where she developed her musical ideas and discovered what other musicians were doing. Andrea is busy all year round composing new music, performing it in the Philadelphia area, around the country and the world. Andrea has maintained this salon tradition for nearly three decades in Philadelphia—nurturing and encouraging new music and musicians—just like Chiquinha.
Chiquinha Gonzaga was one of the first in Brazil to break with tradition and try to create something innovative and Brazilian. She combined European music with African rhythms. Choro was both a style and a “happening.” The idea of choro was to improvise—to get together with other musicians and jam! Along with flutist, Joaquim Callado, Chiquinha experimented with the polka and the lundu, turning out a new rhythm—quintessentially Brazilian, beginning a century of invention in music.
Then, it was our turn. I realized that this performance was really about showcasing Chiquinha’s music. I usually am more concerned about my singing, my vocalism and my own presentation. In this case I did feel like an instrument, the channel for Chiquinha’s communication with the world outside herself—the 21st century Philadelphia new music community. As I sang, somehow her spirit was there. Where we in Rio de Janeiro, at the turn of the 20th century or in Philadelphia 2014? Invisible, was she seated at the piano next to Reese? Her small hands pantomiming the accompaniment as I sang. Perhaps she stood in front of the piano in a floor length 19th century dress, with her famous brooch at her neck, and ribbon in her dark long hair, conducting Reese as he played Gaúcho. Or maybe she just smiled, bobbed her head and tapped her foot to the rhythm of the maxixe…
Through me, Chiquinha Gonzaga made her debut and was well received in Philadelphia. The audience did not speak Portuguese but they claimed to understand the meaning of the songs. It sounds cliché , but it’s true: Music is a universal language—connecting heart to heart, suspended in time and space.
For more information about Andrea Clearfield: http://www.andreaclearfield.com/