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.

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By Asaavedra32 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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: https://spanishsongslinger.wordpress.com/

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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!

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.

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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.

By Fire, By Water: A Courageous Novel

How many were burnt at the stake, broken on the rack? We don’t know. How many were forced to leave behind the lives they knew, and with not much more than the clothes on their backs, seek refuge in foreign lands? We don’t know. How many were psychologically tortured and brainwashed until they confessed? We don’t know. How many publicly turned their backs on their faith just to live? We don’t know. In spite of the lack of documentation, the memory of the Spanish Inquisition remains alive in the descendants of the accused.

1492 was an important year for Spain. The expulsion of the Jews, the fall of the last Muslim kingdom, Granada, and the sailing of the Niña, Pinta and the Santa María, all occurred in 1492. 1893_Nina_Pinta_Santa_Maria_replicas

The title of Mitchell James Kaplan’s novel, By Fire, By Water, embodies and symbolizes these events. The element of fire is an obvious reference to the burnings of heretics, and water represents Columbus’ travels by sea. However, Kaplan, posits another layer of meaning with this title. It references a prayer that is said during Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur, and appears on page 271 of the novel.

“Who shall live and who shall die
Who at the measure of days and who before
Who by fire and who by water
Who by the sword and who by wild beasts
Who shall have rest and who shall go wandering
Who shall be brought low and who shall be raised high.

I spoke with Kaplan on Sept. 16, 2014 in a book club discussion via Skype about the title and its meanings. The prayer signifies the abandonment of the self–the knowledge that we are small or insignificant. Something else, destiny, and/or God, controls. We don’t know what is to come or if we will cease to exist. During the Holy Days, Jewish people are able to pray, repent and do charity in response to avert death. (MyJewishLearning.com, article by Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer) Death, unfortunately, was the fate of countless Jews and others who were captured and tried by the Inquisitors. There is hope though, for the characters who are able to escape and start a new life. They just have to have faith that they will be guided to safety.

In the United States, we tend to focus on Columbus’ journeys, his “discovery of America”, when we think of 1492. In a way this is understandable since WE, are the result of his exploring. The Americas, the “New World” came about because of the explorers’ zeal for riches and adventure. We tend to ignore or forget the atrocities, the genocide, that took place during the Inquisition. After all, it is disturbing and heartbreaking for most of us, 500 years later, to even contemplate it.

Kaplan is not afraid to tackle this very polemic and horrific subject in his historical novel. By Fire, By Water is dense with imagery, historical fact and personages, and transports the reader to another time and place, that of 15th century Zaragoza and Granada. He relates the story of Luis de Santángel, a confused noble, descendant of conversos(Jews who converted to Christianity, usually to avoid prosecution by the Inquisition)who was the right hand to King Fernando. He was also instrumental in bankrolling Columbus’ trips. That is historical fact. However, Chanceller Santángel, in the novel, will do nearly anything, even commit murder, to surpress his Jewish ancestry. (This is Kaplan’s invention). Was he a murderer? An entitled noble? A degenerate? A misguided, desperate man who lost his mind and all sense of right and wrong for fear of being discovered? Although killing people is wrong, the reader must decide on his/her own, what to make of Santángel and his crime, since he is never formerly accused or prosecuted for that crime.

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What is undebatable is that the Inquisition was a movement that destroyed not only the physical bodies of many people, but their lives, their psyches, and the very fabric of Spain’s society. Jewish and Muslim populations, which had contributed scientifically and economically to the Iberian kingdoms, were exiled, killed, or silenced, changing the course of Spanish history FOREVER. The Edict of Expulsion of 1492, was not retracted until 1966! Ironicablly, both the Spanish and Portuguese governments are now offering citizenship and incentives to those that can prove their ancestors were victims of the Inquisition, or who left in fear of being interrogated or called up. Over 500 years later, their descendants are being invited to come “home”….

Ainadamar: Breaking the Spanish Silence

Some 80 years ago Spain was being torn to shreds from within. The Spanish Civil war, of 1936, saw the deaths of many, including Federico Garcia Lorca, probably the most important playwright since the Golden Age’s Calderon de la Barca. Lorca was shot by the Falange, along with thousands of others, and thrown into an unmarked grave in Granada. For years Spaniards have keep silent about these crimes (on both sides). It is only in the 21st century, a generation after Franco died, that the silence has been broken.

Novels about the “disappeared”, demands for the exhumation of bodies, and actual public discussion about the Franco era, started to emerge over the last 12 years. Curiously, the composer of Ainadamar, which is about Lorca’s execution, told from the perspective of his friend/colleague, Margarita Xingu, hails from another country in which dissidents were disappeared and children given away. Osvaldo Golijov does not choose to compose or write about Argentina, but about Spain, and specifically about Lorca. He personalizes this tragedy by focusing on Lorca, but this is the story of many, and it’s about time that the world hears it.

Ainadamar, in the Opera Philadelphia production (originally mounted in Granada, Spain), is a tightly woven musical, dance and theatrical experience. The set and the projected video and stills greatly enhance and complement the score. Most of the cast comes from Spain, and the passion and spirit shines through. This is of cultural and historical significance—this generation of singers and dancers were not under Franco’s rule—yet they are able to participate in a retelling of Lorca’s execution as if they were present. Their bodies and voices resonate with Lorca and their countrymen’s memories.

Vocal highlights of this performance are María Hinojosa Montenegro, who sang Margarita Xingu, and Alfredo Tejada, the flamenco singer. Ms. Hinojosa voice has a rich and beautiful timbre, and her singing is clear and strong throughout. (Of note, the Spanish singers were amplified, something that is not quite acceptable in American opera houses). In addition, Ms. Hinojosa is especially adept at coloring her voice to reflect the necessary emotion. The cante jondo by Afredo Tejada is spectacular and really brings a raw Andalusian/ gypsy feel to the piece. A stunning scene is the death – in which the gunshots contribute to the rhythm of a dance of zapateado. Spanish music, popular and classical, has always been about rhythm, about dance. Underlying the lyricism of this opera, the rhythm of Andalusia pulsates in the dancers’ feet and in the percussion in the orchestra.

Golijov depicts an imaginary Granada, an Ainadamar, through tone, while the production team uses old newspaper articles, photos of Lorca and friends, and videos of nature to set the backdrop of the drama. The physical scene and the music are not the Granada one visits in Spain, where the blend of Byzantium and mozarabe meet, in centuries old romantic architecture, inhabited by both royal and ordinary ghosts and 21st century folks, but Golijov’s interpretation. Nevertheless, it works. There is a tension from the opening number, in which 5 female dancers in pink/purple dresses dance in front of the stones that are soon covered with water—symbolizing the fountain of tears. This same montage is repeated at the end of the opera, marking the end of this journey through Margarita Xingu’s memory and that of many unidentified Spaniards and their descendants. The silence has been broken.

The Making of “El Tesoro”

Two weeks ago I performed a new concert program “El tesoro: Songs from Spain and the Americas” in Freehold, NJ. The concert was sponsored by the Apassionata Arts Recital Series. What was compelling about the content was the combination of music from Spain, the U.S. and south of the border, and the inclusion of original compositions and lesser known repertoire. “El tesoro” which means “the treasure” is also the title of an original art song. I wrote the poem and contemporary composer, Waundell Saavedra, set it to music in 2006. Mr. Saavedra has written songs and also full operas that have been performed in New York City. It was special for me to include this piece.

Another original piece on the program is Gary Madison’s “Cubanos and Cigars.” This is a piece composed for piano that recently won a prize in the Fidelio Musica PIano Competition, based in Spain. Gary’s prowess as a solo pianist is highlighted in his rendition of his composition and Ernesto Lecuona‘s La Malaguena. 

Most of the Spanish art song in this concert (Turina, DeFalla, Rodrigo) is standard fare for singers who perform Spanish repertoire. The Latin American repertoire in Spanish as well as the zarzuela, are quite unknown to most concert goers in the United States. Alongside standard romanzas from zarzuela already in my repertoire, I debuted “Marinela” from “Canción del olvido”  and “María la O”  from the zarzuela of the same name by Ernesto Lecuona.  Although zarzuela productions were popular in New York City, El Paso, Texas and California in the 1980s and 1990s, the mounting of zarzuelas in the U.S. began to diminish in the 21st century. Maria la O is a Cuban zarzuela and works from Cuba tend to be inaccessible to many in the United States due to the estranged relationship between the two nations.

In conjunction with Latin American boleros and art songs by composers such as Ernesto Lecuona, Rafael Hernández (Puerto Rico) and Carlos Guastavino (Argentina), in the third section, I chose to include the Peruvian song Huiracocha which is rarely heard outside of Perú and unknown even to United States’ experts of art music in Spanish.  It was written by Peruvian-American composer, Clotilde Arias in 1941. Huiracocha was my favorite song to perform and was equally enjoyed by the audience.  It is a story and a prayer, a journey, all at once.  Invoking the god of the Inca, it travels across the Andes, and tells the history of a proud people.

Special thanks go to Andrés Andrade, Anna Tonna, Tim Richester, Luis Galvez, and Pablo Zinger, for advice, coaching and scores for El tesoro.  I look forward to presenting this concert again in New York City in 2014. (Details will be forthcoming).

Check out Apassionata Arts upcoming November concert in Freehold, NJ:  http://www.theclassicalvoicecompany.com/Current-Productions.html

Art Imitates Art: “La nuit espagnole” in Lower Manhattan

A small group of artists decided to run with the concept of multimedia performance in a show called “La nuit espagnole: Flamenco and the Spanish Vanguard” in the Between The Seas Festival in Lower East Side Manhattan (DROM) on July 24, 2013.

I attended virtually from my laptop since it was streamed live. This was not equal to witnessing this event live since the image was blurry and it was hard to see some of the performers’ expressions. They also did not capture the projections of art work on which this mélange was based. However, the sound was quite good.

The show was an interpretation in music,  dance and images of the “La noche española” exhibition at the Reina Sofia in Madrid from December 2007- March 2008. (For more information on that exhibition:

http://www.museoreinasofia.es/exposiciones/noche-espanola-flamenco-vanguardia-cultura-popular-1865-1936 )

The performers for the evening were: Anna Tonna, a lovely mezzo-soprano, Rebeca Tomás, flamenco dancer, Anna de la Paz, dancer, María de los Angeles Rubio, pianist, Pedro Cortés, guitarist, and Barbara Martinez, flamenco singer.

The dancers were phenomenal. I studied flamenco in New York City, so I know how challenging it is to get your “roll” on the castanets and to coordinate arms and legs while playing an instrument. Unlike some other dances, feet do one thing and arms and hands do something else. It takes training to build up the muscles in the legs and feet. The feet function as another instrument, providing a contrasting rhythm, “zapateo” in the special flamenco shoes. Head, expression and carriage are extremely important to reflect a Spanish style and stance.

It was surprising to see a female dancer dressed in pants and vest, and dancing a farruca, which is traditionally danced by men. This reminded me how far Spain has come in bending traditional gender roles, from the Franco era. At that time women’s behavior was tightly modeled and controlled. Nowadays there are even female toreadores! (bullfighters).

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“Córdoba,” by Celeste Mann 2012

Both singers sang with gusto and technique and expression appropriate to their genres. Even though there was a mix of music—from popular/folk/flamenco to the opera/ballet of Manuel de Falla and the “Córdoba” of Albéniz, the music blended well from one number to the next. This attests to the very strong dance rhythms inherent in Spain’s musical traditions. De Falla was also inspired by popular/folk music (i.e. Siete Canciones Populares) and elements of “cante jondo” from flamenco singing are evident in his operas and ballets.

One can view the show at the DROM website. It won’t be live but it will give you a little taste of Spain, wherever you are! https://www.gander.tv/event/drom-medfest-2013-anna-tonna-724-715pm-9pm

Related Links:

http://spanishsongslinger.wordpress.com/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6ru59tLb-I (Julian Bream playing “Córdoba”)