Authentically human voices for Havana

A luxury brought to us by the Leo Brouwer Office.

During almost a month – from September 25 to October 18 – the Les Voix Humaines Festival has turned Havana into one of the world’s strong music hubs. Organised by the office of Leo Brouwer with a large group of collaborators, the meeting brought together in the city a considerable number of musicians from the most diverse parts of the world, some of them almost unknown until now for the Cuban public, as well as boosting the work of many of the island’s creators. Contests, training workshops, film cycles, visual art exhibits, also contributed to this megaevent that has been a refined successor of the legendary chamber music meetings that the great guitarist brought about until recently.

One of the aspects the public valued the most was the fact of being able to meet with interpreters which in many cases they had barely known through recordings. Suffice it to recall the performance of the male vocal group Take 6 from the United States in the Karl Marx Theatre on September 26, as well as singers Dulce Pontes from Portugal, Maytén Martín from Spain and Jaramar from Mexico, not forgetting the vocal quartet The Hilliard Ensemble that in four decades of existence has won just fame with its interpretations of medieval, renaissance and contemporary works, among the latter they have promoted and recorded, with great justice, the works of the so-called “sacred minimalism” of Estonian Arvo Pärt (1935), a brilliant musician and of a Franciscan human modesty with whom I was able to get together a few months ago during a meeting in the Vatican.

 

From my personal point of view I confess I was fascinated with two of the recitals given in the Martí Theatre. The first, on October 2, under the title “On the Wings of the Song,” by the Asteria Ensemble from the Netherlands, which I consider a sort of lieder master class I will never forget. Until then I had heard, in recitals or recordings, a great many of these songs based on texts by great German poets, thanks to the genius of Schumann, Wolf, Brahms and other authors. However, I usually had the impression that the spirit of the text almost always escaped, while the works were executed with a correct coldness and without the minimum attempt to give them a hint of dramatic interpretation. That night precisely the contrary occurred: singer Sytze Buwalda, with an unusual alto tessiture – a register located between the contralto and mezzosoprano and not very abundant in adult male voices – offered an authentic show, accompanied by two virtuoso and discreet instrumentalists: mandolin player Ferdinand Binnendijk and guitarist Saskia Spinder. Not only did he read before each interpretation the song’s lyrics in a fluid Spanish, but rather he put into each of the Schubert and Mendelssohn pieces he executed the resources of an exceptional singing like a histrionic grace that took us back to the very origins of the genre, when these authors took texts by Heine, Goethe, Müller and put them to music to be interpreted in taverns and meeting places of students and artists, contrary to the court’s taste for Italian opera. I believe that for the first time I felt an accomplice of this refined genre of German poetry.

 

The second of the memorable meetings took place precisely a week later in the same scenario. This time it was the famous German countertenor Andreas Scholl, accompanied by the archilute of Bosnian Edin Karamazov. While the singer was able to win over the public that filled the theatre with the baroque virtuosity of the cantata Nel dolce tempo by Handel and with the sensitive mysticism of the coral Jesu meine freude, taken from Bach’s Cantata BVW 147, the unforgettable movement remained reserved for the second part when he interpreted several of the melancholic songs of Elizabethan composer John Dowland (1563-1626), as well as the Five English Folk Songs, anonymous works in a Leo Brouwer version. The night’s success cannot be attributed exclusively to the prodigious voice of Scholl but rather to the art of Karamazov as he demonstrated not just his sober work as accompanying musician but rather the interpretation as a soloist of Bach’s Prelude, Allemande-Giga.

 

But not all of the festival’s success was due to the foreign guests. The Countertenor Contest was held in the Spanish-American Centre of Culture thanks to the persistent work of Ubail Zamora, which contributed to give visibility to a type of voice until now only seen on the island as something rare for the taste of the Old World. The A Capella Voices Contest, with a jury presided over by René Baños, also set up camp in the Theatre of the Building of Cuban Art of the National Museum, an initiative necessary in the Cuban musical sphere when that musical mode is beginning to spread, already with acclaimed exponents like the Vocal Sampling Group.

 

The return of the zarzuela Cecilia Valdés to the recently recovered stage of the Martí Theatre was another memorable day of the event. The public that crowded the hall for the single function of September 26 recognised with their applause the pertinence of again giving life to this classic par excellence of Cuban light opera, which in this integral production, directed by Juan R. Amán, makes the fundamental values of the creation of Gonzalo Roig shine in a production surely more rigorous than the 1932 one, when it was premiered in this same coliseum by Mexican Elisa Altamirano under the musical direction of the author.

 

Another significant function took place on October 11 in the Avellaneda Hall of the National Theatre, in which the Opera Theatre performed the first function of the opera Alcina by Handel. That work, with a libretto from the epic poem Orlando Furioso by Ariosto, premiered in London in 1735 – exactly 280 years ago – is one of the exponents that has survived from the baroque opera. It is the first time that the company strays from the limits of its usual repertoire, focused between 19th century romanticism and the verism of the first years of the 20th century, to assume this complex adventure which includes the artistic direction of young filmmaker Luis Ernesto Doñas, the musical advice of Ubail Zamora and the participation of young singers, especially Kirenia Corzo, Indira Echeverría, Teresa Yanet Pérez, Ulises Rodríguez and Luis Javier Oropesa.

 

No less important was the concert Un siglo entre natalicios: Esteban Salas y Laureano Fuentes, which took place in the Espíritu Santo church on October 3. The occasion brought together in the modest colonial parish (which half a century ago, when it was under Father Angel Gaztelu, was the spiritual meridian of the Orígenes group) the Orfeón Santiago Choir, the Camerata Vocale Sine Nomine, the Havana Chamber Orchestra, organ player Moisés Santiesteban and diverse vocal soloists and instrumentalists, who in the first part paid tribute to the memory of maestro Salas with little known works of his authorship. Among those that seemed especially significant for me was the antiphon Tota pulchra II, interpreted by Sine Nomine and Moisés Santiesteban, as well as the premiere of the carol Astros luminosos, composed for the Christmas of 1798, for three triples, accompanied by violinists Jenny Peña and Anabel Estévez, cellist Roberto de la Mota and clavichordist José M. Méndez.

 

Stabat Mater dolorosa, a five-voice sequence with orchestra accompaniment, composed in 1872 by Santiago de Cuba composer Laureano Fuentes, was premiered in the second part. Until now the musical work of this creator was practically unknown for the public, despite the fact that throughout his life he composed works of religious, symphonic music, pieces for piano and voice and even an opera, but such pages seem to be buried in oblivion. Thanks to musicologist Iránea Silva this composition to be executed on Good Friday was rescued and transcribed. Though personally I don’t believe its interest goes much further than the historic, since Fuentes, compared to Salas, did not have a deep rapport with the spirit of religious music but rather took as referent Italian music marked by the opera belle cantoism of Rossini – also the author of a Stabat mater which Laureano was able to have knowledge of – to Verdi, to produce a work that seems more a vocal exhibition than liturgical devotion, undoubtedly comes to fill a place in our history of music, which, thanks to Miriam Escudero and her students and collaborators has started to fill many voids and to clear an endless number of questions. The executions of this work by soloists Milagros de los Ángeles, Ubail Zamora, Eduardo Sarmiento, Roger Quintana and Reinaldo Cobas, as well as the work of Maestra Daiana García at the head of the Havana Chamber Orchestra were very notable.

 

When a few years go by and the career of Leo Brouwer can be considered in all its magnitude, not only will the exceptional guitarist, meritorious composer who contributed to updating Cuban music be recognised, but also the man who revitalised our artistic atmosphere in different periods of time: decades ago at the head of the ICAIC Experimental Sound Group, in more recent years leading the artistic line of the National Symphony Orchestra and now at the head of his already legendary Office that knows how to make the impossible possible and produce events with such profusion of artistic offers that only seemed possible in the major capitals of the world. That is an inalienable part of his most authentic creative work. (2015)

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