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.
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: http://www.cbs8.com/story/34362238/amor-latino-spice-up-your-valentines-day
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 https://www.youtube.com/user/NatOperaCenterLIVE
I painted this in July 2016, thinking about one of the cities that I love, and that means a lot to me. Congrats on mounting the Olympics in such a turbulent time.
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?
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: http://www.northsouthmusic.org/
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/