We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, January 16, 2020


New York Festival of Song at Juilliard with Cubans in Paris

 We were raised a stone's throw from Cuba and we counted among our friends a number of people who had fled Castro's regime. What no one ever told us was that there had been another mass exodus in the 1920's. The violent and repressive regime of Machado led to economic decline and was a hostile environment for musicians, especially if they wrote in the Afro-Cubanismo style. According to Steven Blier's excellent essay, Paris welcomed them with open arms.

Last night's concert was the annual event we always look forward to when Mr. Blier brings his brand of magic to Juilliard where his students always bring even more magic to the stage. Cubans in Paris was filled with terpsichorean energy, luscious melodies, and captivating rhythms. 

Although the students got to do a lot of dancing and acting, we were sadly confined to our seat. The fast-rising director Mary Birnbaum created a little drama out of each song and Adam Cates created the compelling choreography. Shawn Chang provided able assistance to Mr. Blier at the second piano and we must say we have never seen a pianist with such erect posture. Leonardo Granados was responsible for the percussion on conga drums, supplying the rhythmic impulse.

Those who know our taste in music will not be surprised to learn that the first piece on the program--"La bella cubana"-- was our favorite song of the evening, remaining in first place no matter how many others appealed to our eyes and ears. Indeed it was one of two songs from an earlier period, just after the turn of the 20th century; it was composed by José White, a child prodigy whose music was admired by none other than Rossini. This paean to a beautiful Cuban woman was sung in splendid harmony by tenor César Andrés Parreño and baritone Kyle Miller.

Mr. Parreño has quite a feel for Cuban music and delighted us further in a duet with the lovely mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosío. "Si llego a besarte!" was a ballad of yearning, and who would not yearn for the love of the lovely Ms. Cosío. We enjoyed his solo "Tú no sabe inglé", a very funny popular song by Emilio Grenet, whose music was far more accessible than Alejandro Garcí Caturla's "Bito Manué" an earlier setting of the same humorous text by Nicolas Guillén, here performed in fine funny fashion by tenor Santiago Pizarro and Mr. Miller. This poor guy can't connect with all the available American women tourists because he is linguistically handicapped.

The pair also worked brilliantly together in excerpts from the operetta Toi c'est moi by Moisés Simons. The work had a charming music hall feel and told of the adventures of a pair of buddies under both warm fraternal circumstances and also during a fight--"Entre copains".  What a bromance! The choreography was outstanding.

Sindo Garay was a self-taught musician who knew how to write beautiful harmonies. His "Guarina" (another song from the turn of the 20th c.) was superbly realized by tenor Ian Matthew Castro and baritone Aaron Keeney. It had the flavor of a serenade and had much in common with "La bella cubana". It seems our ears just respond better to music closest to the Bel Canto period.

Let us move on to the lovely ladies! We were rather dazzled by the singular soprano of Chea Young Kang who moved us with an aria from José Mauri's zarzuela-- La esclava. In "Perdida para siempre la esperanza", the heroine Matilde laments her tragic life; her beloved deserts her when he learns that she is a mulatta. Such themes were common in racially mixed Cuba, one of the few places were zarzuela survived and was repurposed to suit themes of the time and place.

She was similarly heartbreaking in Ernesto Lecuono's "Maria la O" from the zarzuela of the same name and with a similar theme.

Soprano Jaylyn Simmons had all the right moves as well as a soaring soprano. Eliseo Grenet's sorrowful "Lamento esclavo" found contrast in Simons' "Palmira", portraying a woman who enjoys her sexuality and attracts all the available men. Of course the men of the cast did well as her multiplicity of admirers!

We were not the only member of the audience to enjoy Ms. Casío's performance of Simons' "C'est ça la vie". In this song, Carmen gets to do the stabbing and her faithless lover got just what he deserved.

The lively encore came, not from Cuba, but from Puerto Rico. The entire ensemble joined in the raucous "Cachita" by Rafael Hernandez. The infectious mood of the artists spilled over into the audience and we virtually danced our way home.

© meche kroop

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