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!

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.

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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.

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.