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Cuba Si! At a Seminary


Walden Chamber Players put on a most unusual concert on May 5th (a.k.a. Cinco de Mayo) at an unusual location, the sunny Wilson Chapel Andover Newton Theological Seminary. Themed “Cuba! Music and Images from the Forbidden Island,” it came close to being a Gesamtskunstkonzert, with a exhibition of color photos of Cuba, pre-concert Cuban delicacies,  instrumental music from Cuba, and finally, scrumptious Cuban desserts. Regrettably, the room during the first half of the concert felt as hot as a summer day on a tropical island.

The program had only two composers with whom I was familiar—Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) known for his Malaguena for piano solo (often appropriated by harpists), here played with style by Venezualian pianist Kristhyan Benitez, who also played in Jose White’s (1836-1918) La belle Cubana for two violins and piano with the two superb violinists Irina Muresanu and Olga Patramanska-Bell. Structure with alternating sections of romantically slow and fast, full of languor and yearning, the piece proved to be thoroughly enjoyable, if lightweight fare. One had visions of sippingpiña coladas.

The other composer who I knew of was Joaquin Nin (1879-1949), represented here by his lovely four-movement Sequida Espanola for cello and guitar, here played by the Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers and the superb cellist Ashima Scripp, the new artistic director of the Walden Chamber Players. Much of this reminded one rhythmically and melodically of de Falla. Cellists must love this; it’s not too difficult, and it’s full of melodies that melt your heart. Actually, almost all of the Sequida’s interest was in the cello part; the guitar almost sounded like an obligatory afterthought.

Jorge Martin’s (b. 1959) Serenata: Cuban Suite for Violin and Piano received its world premiere performance (the composer present) from violinist Irina Muresanu her customary fabulous self and pianist Kristhyan Benitez.

Another lovely piece, it was full of Spanish sounding melodies, tango rhythms, Cuban moods, and dances, feeling like a long divertissement, though a tad schmaltzy. The audience seemed to love it. Jose White’s (1836-1918) Zamacueca, Op. 30 for violin and piano followed—a real showcase for a virtuoso violinist, full of stratospherically high harmonics, double stops. Muresanu played it with great flair.

After intermission (when the audience had a chance to look over and buy the Cuba photographs), Leo Brouwer (b. 1939) was represented by his El Decameron Negro for guitar. Brouwer, also a film composer (“Like Water for Chocolate”) has written prolifically for guitar and is, unsurprisingly, a guitarist himself. The piece was pleasant enough, but I doubt that if there were guitarists in the audience, they would rush out to learn it.

Tulia Peramo Carere’s (b. 1948) Moderato from Tres Imagenes Cubanas for guitar and strings followed. An odd piece, it alternated between solo guitar, and strings, rarely employing both. Finally, the best piece of the afternoon—by a long shot—was Seven Dances for String Quartet by Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905). The violinists, Patramanska-Bell and Muresanu, the excellent violist Chistof Huebner, and cellist Ashima Scripp, gave an all-out, fabulous performances. Photos of Cuba were unhelpfully and distractingly projected onto a screen behind the musicians, —better to have used the images for a piece with less interesting musical content.

Cervantes wrote many Cuban Dances, mostly for piano, but he certainly knew how to write for strings. No me Toques (Don’t Touch Me) had a lovely lilt, Los Tres Golpes (3 Strikes), full of charm, was played with spunk and character. Illusiones Perdidas (Lost Illusions) had an unmistakable come-hither feel to it. I could have listened to this piece all over again when it was over. This composer and piece were real discoveries.

The Walden Chamber Players is an excellent group, and this was a fun way to spend a sunny Sunday.  The instrumental music by Cuban composers they performed on Sunday wasn’t nearly as first-rate as were the players, but it was a wonderful introduction to the sounds—so often European and African influenced—of this island that rarely make it to mainstream classical music concerts. And the desserts were amazing.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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