Music that is somehow outside the accepted parameters of classical music appears at the Tannery Pond Concerts once or twice every season. For example, in 2008, soprano Amy Burton and pianist John Musto presented a program of show tunes from Broadway and the Grands Boulevards. Or mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, whose singing of Vivaldi, Handel, and Rossini is so highly regarded in Europe and America, combined German Lieder with zarzuela numbers, an enthusiasm she acquired from her Mexican-born mother. Now, for Tannery’s 20th anniversary season, Artistic Director Christian Steiner has asked Paula Robison and her colleagues, Romero Lubambo and Cyro Baptista (both Brazilians who have settled in the United States) to return after a 10-year absence to play the Brazilian music which has attracted a warmly enthusiastic following since the early 90’s when they first began playing together. The concert was Saturday, June 19.
The music includes elements of folk and African traditions and jazz as well as dance rhythms you’ll hear in bars and on the streets in cities like Rio or Fortaleza. Some of these are regional, and others are relatively familiar to North Americans through movies and recordings. The music itself is irresistible, but what made it unique was the combination of these three highly virtuosic players and the particular mutual understanding and interplay they’ve developed over years of happy musicmaking. (And for the most part, the music itself is happy — extroverted tunes full of lively, sometimes flowing, sometimes shifting dance rhythms. Sad feelings were more as mock-sadness, as in the rapidly passing minor passages expressing the moods of a little white bird.) Lubambo and Baptista are capable of great rhythmic precision and flexibility, and Lubambo’s phrasing and expression are the equal of any classical musician. Baptista also appears to be able to produce any sound recognizable through human ears with his vast assortment of percussion instruments, most of them of his own design and manufacture. (He told me that they all have names, which is in itself no mean feat.) Both of them tell good jokes, and Baptista is a master of movement. He and Robison were especially inclined to dance — it’s not hard to understand why she loves to play with them.
As if to transport us from the Tannery in this Upstate Shaker village-cum-boarding school to the streets of Rio, Cyro Baptista performed shoeless, and that was not the only striking thing in his performance. His totally unexpected procession down the aisle, playing the berimbau, a traditional Brazilian single-stringed instrument with a gourd for a sounding-box, is unforgettable, not least for the strange music and the strange appearance and sound of the instrument. Other oddities were products of Cyro’s imagination: an array of plastic pipes, which he played with flip-flops — in his hands. He must be very proud of this, since he has called it “cyrimba.” There was also the “chavisco,” which consists of scores of keys attached to a ping-pong paddle.
The Brazilian tunes are delightful, but they are raised to an altogether higher level by the trio’s subtle treatment of rhythm and gamut of intense colors. Paula Robison’s tone, both on her flute (which was making its maiden voyage with a new head joint) and on the piccolo, (which she used in the latter part of the program) is robust and full of contrast, supporting her fine phrasing and expression; and her precise articulation enabled her to match her Brazilians in the vigor and control of her rhythms. The music called for some bright, cutting sounds as well as a soft, whispering tone in its more intimate, vulnerable moods, and Robison was able to encompass them and many other tonal variants, throwing herself into the spirit of the music with abandon, but without losing control. Romero Lubambo produced a rich, golden sound from his acoustic guitar, which, like the others, he played through the portable sound system they had set up for the occasion.
This was the first time I’d heard amplification in the Tannery — one of very few occasions on which it is appropriate there. It sounded perfectly fine, and its visible and audible presence functioned more as a signifier of the fact that the music that was being played is not the music of the recital hall, but the music of bars, nightclubs, and the street. Did I mention that there was Bach on the program as well, also played through the sound system? Robison played a movement from one of the solo flute partitas, as well as the Air on the G-String, both in appropriately Brazilian arrangements. She also played Debussy’s Syrinx —without Brazilian color.
My only disappointment in the concert (apart from the neglect of the vuvuzuela, although one of the songs was actually about a football match), in fact, concerned the latter. Robison played the first section of the Bach straight, then Baptista joined in with discreet and subtle rhythms produced on one of his store-bought drums with a soft device of his own. My expectation was that this chaste beginning would build into a set of progressively wilder variations, but the treatment remained tasteful and restrained to the end. My stereotyped assumptions are entirely to blame, of course, and not the musicians. Soon enough, however, my ears were open to Baptista’s sophisticated rhythmic effects, and Robison’s playing was as noble as one might expect.
This is of course not the first time the music of J. S. Bach has been imported to Brazil. Neither is it an accident that a distinguished classical flutist has taken up Brazilian popular music. The flute (with guitar accompaniment) is a traditional instrument among Brazilian street musicians, especially in the choro (or chorinho), the grandfather of Brazilian popular music, which was very much in evidence on the program, including a number of very famous ones, for example Ernesto Nazareth’s “Brejeiro,” Waldir Azevedo’s “Brasileirinho,” and Pixinguinha’s “Carinhoso” and “Um a zero,” and, most famous of all, Zequinha de Abreu’s “Tico-Tico no Fubá,” Although the word choro means lament, these are usually quick, cheerful pieces. There were also a couple of examples of the frevo, a dance from northeastern Brazil. Some of the songs imitated natural sounds. A song about rain required audience participation, and a set of three bird songs inspired Cyro to bring out an instrument made of rubber tubes and resembling some exotic jellyfish, which produced rain-forest sounds. To this accompaniment he played a whistle specifically designed to mimic the bird’s call.
This program was not at all what the Tannery Pond audience is used to, but everybody loved it and thanked the musicians with deafening applause and enthusiastic shouts. Apart from a single audience member who left during the interval in disgust, the only complaints were that the seats weren’t removed to make a dance floor. The only thing missing for me was Nikolai the Sealyham terrier, who usually puts in an appearance before the concerts. Presumably the great mess of instruments that surrounded Cyro Baptista would have proven too much of a temptation for the animal.