From Ireland to the West Indies and Madagascar to Manhattan, this musical excursion will bring these distinctive cultures to life with the songs of Ravel, Berlin, Traditional melodies, and many more.
Inaugurated in the spring of 2009, Vocal Rising Stars is Caramoor’s newest mentoring program, focusing on vocal chamber music and the art of song in recital. Singers at the advanced student and the beginning professional level participate in an intensive week-long residency of daily coaching, rehearsals, and workshops with mentors Steven Blier, Artistic Director for Vocal Rising Stars; Michael Barrett; and guest teaching artists; culminating in public performances.
The Schwab Vocal Rising Stars program provides singers with an opportunity to form collaborative partnerships with one another, the Caramoor staff, and the coaches/collaborative pianists who also participate in the residency.
Schwab Vocal Rising Stars
Christine Taylor Price, soprano
Hannah Dishman, mezzo-soprano
Jack Swanson, tenor
Benjamin Dickerson, baritone
HoJae Lee, piano
Steven Blier, Artistic Director of Schwab Vocal Rising Stars, coach, piano, arrangements
Michael Barrett, coach and piano
Marco Granados, flute and coach
Karen Ouzounian, cello
IrelandTraditionalSiúl A GhráTraditionalThe Palatine’s DaughterBaxAs I Came Over the Grey, Grey HillsTraditional From Three Irish Folk Songs: The Foggy, Foggy Dew / She Moved Through the Fair (arr. John Corigliano) CollissonEileen ÓgCuba GarayGuarinaSánchez de FuentesTúLecuonaQuiero ser hombreMauriAria de Matilde, from La EsclavaGrenetTú no sab ingleCaturlaJuego santoMadagascar TraditionalIga’ma lo Ta’ndoRavelChansons madécassesManhattan Villa-LobosManhattan SkylineWeillOne Life to Live, from Lady in the DarkRobert BrownWhen You Come Home to Me, from The Last Five YearsBerlinThrough a KeyholeMustoLitanyPorterI Happen to Like New York
Schwab Vocal Rising Stars
Christine Taylor Price, soprano
Christine Taylor Price, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, received her Masters degree in vocal performance and is now earning her Artist Diploma in Opera Studies both at The Juilliard School. In 2017, Ms. Price will perform Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at Opera in Williamsburg and performed the soprano solo in Mahler’s 4th Symphony under Maestro Edward Gardner at The Juilliard School. In 2016, she performed Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, David Stern conducting. She was a soloist in The Juilliard School’s gala performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream under Maestro Alan Gilbert. Last May, Ms. Price made her Carnegie Hall debut performing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, under the baton of Maestro Mark Shapiro.
On the opera stage, she has performed Lucia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, as well as the title roles in Cavalli’s La Calisto and La Doriclea. In 2015, she performed Lucien in The Ghosts of Versailles and covered the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at Wolf Trap Opera. She has participated in masterclasses with Joyce DiDonato, Pablo Heras-Casado, and Fabio Luisi. In October, she will be singing the role of Governess in The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten at Opera Columbus.
Hannah Dishman, mezzo-soprano
Hannah Dishman, originally from Bristol, Virginia, received her master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Manhattan School of Music in 2014 and 2016 on full scholarship provided by the Birgit Nilsson Foundation. Recently, Ms. Dishman made her Opera Theatre of Saint Louis debut as a Gerdine Young Artist in May 2016 where she covered the role of Firdaus Noman and played the Boy in the world premiere, Shalimar the Clown. Ms. Dishman will be returning to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for their 2017 season and will be singing the role of Ruthie Joad from Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath. She will also be covering Annio from La clemenza di Tito. Other credits include Count Orlofsky from Die Fledermaus, Melloe from Cavalli’s La Doriclea, Third Lady and Third Spirit from Die Zauberflöte, Mrs. Segstrom from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, Meg March from Adamo’s Little Women and Meg Page from Verdi’s Falstaff.
Jack Swanson, tenor
Stillwater, Minnesota native Jack Swanson, is quickly becoming one of the most sought after young tenors in the opera world. His distinctive high lyric voice is known for singing the acrobatic arias of Rossini and the legato melodies of Donizetti.
Jack earned a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from the University of Oklahoma, where he performed the roles of Don Ottavio in DonGiovanni and Nemorino in L’elisirD’amore. In May of 2016 he will receive his Masters of Music in Vocal Performance from the highly reputable Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, studying under the direction of voice teacher, Dr. Stephen King. While at Rice, Jack performed the roles of il conte d’almaviva in ilbarbierediSiviglia and Eurimaco in Montiverdi’s ilritornod’ulisses. Additional opera highlights include: Tonio (cover) in “Lafilleduregiment” and Count Belfiore (cover) in Mozart’s LafintaGiardiniera, and two years as an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera. Jack spent two summers as a young artist with The Seagle Music Colony, where he performed the roles of Tobias Ragg in SweeneyTodd and the title role in Britten’s comedic opera AlbertHerring. Jack made his Des Moines Metro Opera debut singing the role of Fenton in Verdi’s Falstaff.
Also known for his concert work, Mr. Swanson’s credits include: the entirety of Handel’s Messiah, Dubois’ TheSevenLastWordsofChrist, Mozart’sRequiem and Carl Orff’s CarminaBurana. Other engagements include: Holiday Favorites with the Arizona Opera and Birmingham Opera, and the Houston Grand Opera’s gala where Jack performed scenes from Rossini’s La Cenerentola with HGO’s studio artists and world-renowned mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato. Swanson made his Kennedy Center debut singing selections from Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
Jack is the competition winner and recipient of several prestigious awards including: first place in Florida Grand Opera’s Young Patroness Competition, The San Antonio Music Club Competition, The National Opera Association Competition and The Hal Leonard Art Song Competition. He twice received the Richard Tucker Memorial award from the Santa Fe Opera. He was a finalist in both Houston Grand Opera’s Eleanor McCollum competition and Fort Worth Opera’s McCammon Competition. Recently, Jack was featured on National Public Radio’s Young Artist in Residence program, PerformanceToday.
Benjamin Dickerson, baritone
Baritone Benjamin Dickerson, winner of the 2015 Marilyn Horne Song Competition, made his Carnegie Presents debut in Weill Hall alongside pianist Warren Jones in January, 2017. This season Mr. Dickerson will return to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis as a Gerdine Young Artist performing in Madama Butterfly and The Grapes of Wrath. His recent national recital tour culminated in a performance event in The Greene Space in New York, broadcast live on WQXR, where he was joined by Isabel Leonard and Marilyn Horne. Equally at home on operatic stages, Mr. Dickerson recently appeared with Opera Theatre of St. Louis as a Gerdine Young Artist, covering the roles of Schaunard in La Boheme and Pyralyl in the world premier of Jack Perla’s Shalimar the Clown. He has recently covered the role of Dandini (La cenerentola) at both the Music Academy of the West and Green Mountain Opera Festival.
Mr. Dickerson has performed the leading roles in Don Giovanni, The Dangerous Liaisons, and Le roi l’a Dit under the batons of Kenneth Merrill and George Manahan while at Manhattan School of Music. As a native of Vermont, Benjamin enjoys frequent collaboration with the Burlington Chamber Orchestra and the Burlington Choral Society, performing works such as Haydn’s The Seasons, Handel’s Messiah, and Francois Joseph Gossec’s requiem.
In December, 2016, he will receive a Bachelor of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he was a recipient the Mae Zenke Orvis Opera Scholarship. Other recent credits include Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro), Ben (The Telephone), Gaudenzio (Il Signor Bruschino), Ottone (L’Incoronazione di Poppea), and Papageno (Die Zauberflöte). He currently studies with Ruth Golden.
HoJae Lee, piano
HoJae Lee is the grand prize winner of numerous competitions, including 2016 Juilliard Vocal Arts Honors Recital Audition, Rotary Club Music Competition, Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival and Korean TV-Radio Music Competition. Mr. Lee frequently performs with today’s best young rising-stars including Sol Jin, Sung-Eun Lee and Virginie Verrez, whom all named as winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition Grand Final. Recent performances have included recitals in Salzburg, Budapest, Prague, Riga and the United Nations in Vienna. Mr. Lee made his recital debut at the Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. This season, Mr. Lee performed in WQXR’s Midday Masterpieces series.
Mr. Lee was born in Seoul, Korea and later pursued piano studies in Moscow and Toronto, where he studied with renowned teacher Marietta Orlov. Mr. Lee is a graduate student at The Juilliard School, where he studies with Margo Garrett and Jonathan Feldman. Additional private coaching and master classes with Martin Katz, Warren Jones, Helmut Deutsch, Roger Vignoles, Brian Zeger, John Fisher, Marc Durand, Robert McDonald, Thomas Hampson and Marilyn Horne. He was awarded vocal piano fellowship from 2015 Aspen Music Festival and 2016 Music Academy of the West. Mr. Lee is a recipient of the Jerome L. Greene Fellowship from The Juilliard School.
Steven Blier, Artistic Director of Schwab Vocal Rising Stars, coach, piano, arrangements
Steven Blier is the Artistic Director of the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), which he co-founded in 1988 with Michael Barrett. Since the Festival’s inception, he has programmed, performed, translated, and annotated more than 140 vocal recitals with repertoire spanning the entire range of American song, art song from Schubert to Szymanowski, and popular song from early vaudeville to Lennon-McCartney. NYFOS has also made in-depth explorations of music from Spain, Latin America, Scandinavia, and Russia. New York Magazine gave NYFOS its award for Best Classical Programming, while Opera News proclaimed Blier “the coolest dude in town.”
Mr. Blier enjoys an eminent career as an accompanist and vocal coach. His recital partners have included Renée Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, Samuel Ramey, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Susan Graham, Jessye Norman, and José van Dam, in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to La Scala. He is also on the faculty of The Juilliard School and has been active in encouraging young recitalists at summer programs, including the Wolf Trap Opera Company, Santa Fe Opera, and the San Francisco Opera Center. Many of his former students, including Stephanie Blythe, Joseph Kaiser, Sasha Cooke, Paul Appleby, Dina Kuznetsova, Corinne Winters, and Kate Lindsey, have gone on to be valued recital colleagues and sought-after stars on the opera and concert stage.
In keeping the traditions of American music alive, he has brought back to the stage many of the rarely heard songs of George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill, and Cole Porter. He has also played ragtime, blues, and stride piano evenings with John Musto. A champion of American art song, he has premiered works of John Corigliano, Paul Moravec, Ned Rorem, William Bolcom, Mark Adamo, John Musto, Richard Danielpour, Tobias Picker, Robert Beaser, Lowell Liebermann, Harold Meltzer, and Lee Hoiby, many of which were commissioned by NYFOS.
Mr. Blier’s extensive discography includes the premiere recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles (Koch International), which won a Grammy Award; Spanish Love Songs (Bridge Records), recorded live at the Caramoor Music Festival with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Joseph Kaiser, and Michael Barrett; the world premiere recording of Bastianello (John Musto) and Lucrezia(William Bolcom), a double bill of oneact comic operas set to librettos by Mark Campbell; and Quiet Please, an album of jazz standards with vocalist Darius de Haas. His latest release is Canción amorosa, a CD of Spanish songs with soprano Corinne Winters on the GRP label.
His writings on opera have been featured in Opera News and the Yale Review. A native New Yorker, he received a Bachelor’s Degree with Honors in English Literature at Yale University, where he studied piano with Alexander Farkas. He completed his musical studies in New York with Martin Isepp and Paul Jacobs.
Michael Barrett, coach and piano
Associate Artistic Director of the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), Michael Barrett started NYFOS in 1988 with his friend and colleague Steven Blier. Mr. Barrett was Chief Executive and General Director of the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts from 2003-2012. In 1992, he co-founded the Moab Music Festival with his wife, violist Leslie Tomkins. From 1994 to 1997, he was the Director of the Tisch Center for the Arts at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
A protégé of Leonard Bernstein, Mr. Barrett began his long association with the renowned conductor and composer as a student in 1982. He is currently the Artistic Advisor for the estate of Leonard Bernstein. He has been a guest conductor with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic, and the Orchestre National de France, among others. He also has served variously as conductor, producer, and music director of numerous special projects, including dozens of world premieres by Bernstein, Musto, Bolcom, Rorem, and D’Rivera.
Mr. Barrett’s discography includes: Spanish Love Songs, recorded live at Caramoor with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Steven Blier, and Joseph Kaiser; Live from the Moab Music Festival; the Grammy-nominated Evidence of Things Not Seen (New World Records); Aaron Kernis: 100 Greatest Dance Hits (New Albion); On the Town (Deutsche Grammophon); Kaballah (Koch Classics) by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie; Schumann Lieder with Lorraine Hunt and Kurt Ollmann (Koch); andArias and Barcarolles (Koch) by Leonard Bernstein (Grammy Award).
Marco Granados, flute and coach
Haynes Artist Marco Granados, a native of Venezuela, maintains an active international career as a soloist, chamber musician, and educator. His diverse repertoire spans from classical to folk, with an emphasis on Latin-American music as his specialty. He is currently a member of the innovative Chamber Ensemble Classical Jam and has been a member of many critically acclaimed ensembles, among them the Quintet of the Americas, Triangulo (Latin American Chamber Trio), and Un Mundo Ensemble. As a founding member of the Amerigo Ensemble, The Camerata Latinoamericana, and the Granados/Abend Duo, Mr. Granados’ collaborations also include those with The Cuarteto Latinoamericano, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and with such distinguished artists as Paquito D’Rivera, flutist Ransom Wilson, harpist Nancy Allen, oboist Heinz Holliger, flutist William Bennett, as well as with soprano Renee Fleming and baritone Dwayne Croft. Recent performances include recitals at Wigmore Hall in London, Carnegie Hall Stern Auditorium and tours of the US, Slovenia and South Africa. He has also performed at many summer music festivals including Moab, Chautauqua and the Colorado Music Festival in addition to the Caramoor International Music Festival. From 2007 to 2009 Mr. Granados was Music Advisor to Caramoor’s Latin American Music Initiative: Sonidos Latinos.
In his native country, Mr. Granados has performed with many of the leading Symphony Orchestras, premiering both the Jacques Ibert and Aram Khachaturian flute concerti with the Maracaibo and Venezuelan Symphony Orchestras, respectively. He also gave the South American premiere of the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra by Mexican composer Samuel Zyman with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Lima in Peru. Past solo engagements have included a special invitation in 1986 by the Mayor of New York City to perform for Placido Domingo at Gracie Mansion. In recital, he made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in 1991. Since then, he has performed recitals in the United States, Canada, South America, and the Caribbean. The first musician to have appeared as soloist for three consecutive seasons with the New York City Symphony at Alice Tully Hall and Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, Mr. Granados has also appeared as soloist with Philharmonia Virtuosi of New York, members of the Cleveland Orchestra, The Juilliard Chamber Orchestra, the Haydn Festival Orchestra of Maine, and L’Orchestra in the Berkshires, among others.
On radio broadcasts, Mr. Granados was recently featured nationwide on NPR in Caramoor Music Festival’s Sonidos Latinos Broadcast as the presenter and performer of the Festival’s Latin American initiative and also on “Performance Today” with Camerata Latinoamericana. In 1996, he presented a program of Venezuelan and Latin-American music on “Around New York” with host Fred Child of WNYC. Other radio appearances include live performances on WQXR in New York City with Classical Jam. As a recording artist, he has appeared on such labels as CRI, Chesky Records, MMC Records, Koch World, XLNT Records, and Soundbrush Records. Mr. Granados has toured the United States on several occasions with the Quintet of the Americas, with performances at Carnegie Hall, The Bermuda International Music Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, Alice Tully Hall in New York City, and in many university concert series. As a former artist-in residence at Northwestern University in Chicago, Mr. Granados gave recitals and concerts with Elena Abend, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as with the Quintet of the Americas. Recordings by Mr. Granados include Music of Venezuela, Virtuoso Flute music by living Venezuelan composers; Luna, a romantic serenade of songs from Venezuela and South America for flute and guitar; Tango Dreams, a compilation of works by Astor Piazzolla, and Amanecer, a collection of Venezuelan flute favorites.
A devoted educator, he has traveled the world teaching children about the wonder of creation through his composition workshops and is currently on the faculty of the Longy School of Music of Bard College as both Flute Faculty and the The Teaching Artist Program faculty. Marco Granados is proud to be playing a 19.5k Gold flute made by the William S. Haynes flute company in Boston, MA.
Karen Ouzounian, cello
Described as “radiant” and “expressive” (The New York Times) and “nothing less than gorgeous” (Memphis Commercial Appeal), cellist Karen Ouzounian approaches music-making with a deeply communicative and passionate spirit. At home in diverse musical settings, she has become increasingly drawn towards unusual collaborations and eclectic contemporary repertoire. She is a founding member of the Aizuri Quartet, 2015-2016 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts and 2014-2016, String Quartet-in-Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
In addition to her work with the Aizuri Quartet, Karen‘s commitment to adventurous programming and the collaborative process has led to her membership in the Grammy-nominated, self-conducted chamber orchestra A Far Cry, and the critically-acclaimed new music collective counter)induction. Highlights of Karen’s recent and upcoming seasons include performances of the Elgar Concerto in Chile with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Santiago, tours with the Silk Road Ensemble and Mark Morris Dance Group, recitals at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts with pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute, a tour of Japan with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and tours with Musicians from Marlboro and Musicians from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute. Additionally she has performed with The Knights, Trio Cavatina, and as guest principal of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, IRIS Orchestra, and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
Born to Armenian parents in Toronto, Karen was a prizewinner at the 2012 Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank Competition. She holds Master of Music and Bachelor of Music degrees from The Juilliard School, where she was a student of Timothy Eddy.
Notes on the program by Steven Blier, Artistic Director
Classical singers are avid cultural travelers, routinely delving into music from the Americas, Europe, Scandinavia, and the Slavic countries. Today we add two more languages to NYFOS’s polyglot repertoire: Gaelic and Zulu. It’s all in a day’s work for this bold, gifted quartet of vocalists. They have taken a week off from their usual diet of Rossini and Mozart, and delved into the wonderfully intense colors of Irish, African, and Cuban song—before coming home to celebrate our home island, Manhattan.
I always used to joke that one of the important things Michael Barrett and I had in common was that we both came from islands: Michael was born in Guam, and I was born in Manhattan. This quip could always be counted on to bring down the house at a NYFOS concert. In recent years, though, I have started to wonder if there wasn’t some truth underlying my flippant remark. Island dwellers, whether urban or tropical, all seem to develop certain traits. We crave the proximity of water, which provides us with a comforting aquatic buffer from the rest of the world. We see ourselves as fundamentally different from (and superior to) our landlocked neighbors. We are often under attack from outside enemies, and must learn to protect ourselves from invasion. Michael and I have talked about exploring the idea of island songs for some years. As everyone waits impatiently for spring to arrive, what could be more enticing than to take a cruise around the world and hear the songs of its islands? Sailing from Ireland to Cuba and thence to Madagascar, we’ll finally dock in Manhattan, my island of choice.
The Irish speak in music. Anyone who has visited the Emerald Isle knows that the lilt of the Irish accent turns the most prosaic utterance—“Would you like butter on that scone?”—into something resembling song. Irish music, like African-American music, was that of an oppressed people. It has ancient roots, drawing on haunting modes including the five-note pentatonic scale and the ethereal sound of the Irish harp.
We’ll start with a pair of traditional Irish tunes: “The Palatine’s Daughter” and “Siúl a Ghrá,” which marks NYFOS’s very first foray into Gaelic. The first of these is a sprightly jig with a long pedigree. Like many Irish folk songs, it is based on an old tune, a hornpipe called “Garden of Daisies.” It is a story of assimilation: the Palatines were a Northern European, German-speaking population forced out of their country, the Palatinate, by war in the early eighteenth century. England offered them asylum, and in 1711 three hundred Palatine families arrived in Dublin, eventually forming enclaves throughout Ireland. As you can see, some of them did quite well in their new homeland.
For romance, we’ll turn to a pair of folk song settings John Corigliano composed for the Irish/American bard Robert White in 1990. Corigliano accompanies the voice not with piano but with a flute obbligato, exploiting it to evoke a surprisingly wide range of colors. “The Foggy Dew” is not the wry Burl Ives tune most of us know, but a flirtatious story of courtship set to a sensuous pentatonic melody. “She Moved through the Fair,” a classic recorded by everyone from Pete Seeger to Led Zeppelin, evokes a mysterious nighttime encounter between two lovers.
At the age of 19, the English composer Sir Arnold Bax read W. B. Yeats’s The Wanderings of Oisin. “The Celt within me stood revealed,” he later wrote. Ireland became his passion, and on his frequent visits he formed close ties to the people and their culture. He chose to “follow the dream,” moved to Dublin for over a decade, and adopted an Irish pseudonym, Dermot O’Byrne. Under that name, he published poetry, short stories, and plays. One of his most important books was A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems, a response to the Easter Uprising in 1916. Bax had been close to many of the important Irish leaders who were massacred. His passionate recounting of the tragedy was banned in Britain.
Bax’s music also “follows the dream,” with its broad, bardic sweep and modal harmony. The darkly brooding song “As I Came Over the Grey, Grey Hills” finds emotional clarity in Joseph Campbell’s opaque words, leading to a climax that is both shimmering and weighty.
“Eileen Óg” is the handiwork of Houston Collisson and Percy French, a hugely successful songwriting team from the late 1890s. They produced a large repertoire of popular songs and operas, including the evergreen “Mountains of Mourne.” Like many Irish ballads of that era, the vocal line of “Eileen Óg” has a more operatic feel than its English or American equivalents. After all, it’s scored for Irish tenor, full of blarney and high notes.
Ever since the runaway success of Buena Vista Social Club, the music of Cuba has become popular and ubiquitous. Who doesn’t love a habanera? But underneath the rhythmic verve lies a darker story of the island’s social and political strife. Racial tensions ran high, just as they did—and do—in our country, and slavery was the fate of the Afro-Cubans until 1886. But as the years rolled by the island’s two cultures gradually began to intermingle. Cuban music was there to document the grafting of Spanish elegance onto the complex throb of African rhythms, to form that unique sound we love today. It evolved slowly. In 1900, white dance bands didn’t use drums, while black street bands relied on all kinds of percussion, most of it homemade. The Spanish elements suppressed, resisted, slowly co-opted, and finally embraced the rhythms of the oppressed Afro-Cubans. Much of this was due to the new popularity of radios, which allowed proper middle-class people to enjoy the animal abandon of criollas and danzones in the privacy of their homes. Soon they even felt comfortable about stepping out onto the dance floor to do the rumba, which had previously been banned as indecent.
If the Spanish component of Cuban music can be called its right wing and the African component its left wing, Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes (1874-1944) was a staunch rightist. He wrote his hit tune “Tú” when he was 18 years old. Fuentes lived long enough to understand that the progress of his country’s music would inevitably include contributions from both parties. Cuba’s music would never be able to remain “racially pure” and free of Afro-Cuban influences as he would have wanted it.
Each of the composers we are hearing is a spokesman for a different part of Cuba’s musical history. Emilio Grenet led the way in blending Cuba’s disparate cultures, setting Afro-Cuban poetry to music of sly sophistication. Sindo Garay, part Spanish and part South American Indian, was a natural talent, illiterate until he was 16, and never able to read music. Yet his gift for trova—lyrical, guitar-accompanied song—earned him an undying place in the Cuban pantheon. His hit tune “Guarina” has the elegance of a bel canto song. Ernesto Lecuona enjoyed the most successful career of all, with a legacy of over four hundred songs, fifty-three theater pieces, eleven film scores, and a huge repertoire of salon pieces for piano. Lecuona’s fusion of the classical and the popular, the African and the Spanish, decisively turned Cuban music a worldwide phenomenon.
Alejandro García Caturla was among the first Cubans to receive recognition in Europe as a classical composer. This is all the more remarkable because he combined his life as a musician with a second career as a judge. While he was a law student, he met Alejo Carpentier, one of Cuba’s greatest writers and activists. Carpentier opened the world of French surrealism to the composer, which gave Caturla the impetus to go to Paris and study composition with Nadia Boulanger. Carpentier was one of the first promoters of Afrocubanismo, and spread the message while he was living in Paris during the late 1920s by promoting Cuban musicians and painters. Middle-class Cubans may have disdained the new wave of Afro-Cuban art, but Parisians had embraced primitivism for over a decade and responded vociferously to the new energy from Latin America and the Caribbean.
While he was attending a festival in Barcelona, Caturla received a wire from Carpentier in Paris commissioning him to set his “Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanos” (of which “Juego Santo” is the second song) to music for a concert scheduled to take place in a matter of weeks. Caturla rose to the challenge, and the premiere at Salle Gaveau by soprano Lydia Rivera with Ernesto Lecuona at the piano resulted in superlative reviews. His European career was assured.
Alas, it ended too soon. At home Caturla waged a campaign against corruption and became known as a tough fighter. In 1940, at the age of 34, he became involved with a case of spouse abuse. The defendant thought, wrongly, that his case would end up in Caturla’s court. Rather than subject himself to the rigorous implementation of the law, he shot Caturla in the street. One of Cuba’s brightest lights was extinguished.
Cuba’s musical theater began in the 1800s with a proliferation of satirical sainetes—disposable, one-act operettas like sitcoms, in which social and political issues could be aired in a light-hearted way. Starting in the early 1920s, Cuban artists started to give their operettas a grander framework by starting a Cuban zarzuela repertoire, grafting both their dance rhythms and their social concerns onto the popular Spanish light-opera formula. It flowered during one of Cuba’s grimmest political eras, when the island fell under the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. Life became increasingly violent, underground groups tried to topple the regime, and the Machadistas retaliated. In this dangerous atmosphere, zarzuelas were at once a popular, tuneful entertainment as well as a safe way to focus on difficult social issues, especially interracial romance. Most of the stories were set in the past, to avoid direct parallels with current events. The plots usually involved a mulata, her faithful black suitor, and her fickle, exploitative white paramour. Such is the case with José Mauri’s La esclava, one of the first in the new genre. The heroine Matilda pours out her heart with the abandon of a Mascagni heroine—and ultimately perishes like one as well.
Irish composers and poets don’t need to work hard to evoke their homeland. The Irish spirit resides in their artistic DNA. But Maurice Ravel had to draw on all his sophisticated craft to create a musical Madagascar in his 1926 vocal chamber work Chansons madécasses. It was commissioned by the formidable American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who funded an impressive array of twentieth century masters from Copland (Appalachian Spring) to Barber (The Hermit Songs), and also built the concert hall at the Library of Congress. She was a passionate advocate for modern music, and insisted “not that we should like it, nor necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.”
When Coolidge telegrammed Ravel with her request for a new vocal work, she asked if it could be scored for piano, flute, and cello. At that moment, Ravel was re-examining a book of poems by Evariste Parny on the subject of Madagascar. Ravel chose three of Parny’s poems that fired his imagination, and got to work on what turned out to be a ground-breaking work, the Chansons madécasses.
Ravel had first come into contact with Parny’s poems in 1900 when he was a student. That was also the year of the Exposition universelle de 1900, where Madagascar had a well-attended pavilion featuring an enormous scale model of the island. During the day there were short concerts of native music, which many think Ravel attended. Certainly there is nothing else like the Chansons madécasses in Ravel’s oeuvre. Each of the three instruments is completely independent of the others, and Ravel pushes them to their limits in order to make unusual sound effects. The low register of the flute becomes a trombone-like war cry in the second song, the pizzicato cello in the last song turns into an African tambour, the high cello harmonics sound like a Malagasy wooden flute, and the piano ostinatos become throbbing gongs. In the madécasses, every instrument plays in a different key from the others, and sometimes in no recognizable key at all. The net effect is astonishing, erotic, languorous, and startlingly fierce in the middle movement, where the speaker admonishes his listeners to be wary of the invading white man.
Evariste Parny (1753-1814) never actually visited Madagascar, though he was born in that part of the world—the Île de Bourbon in the Indian Ocean. But he was fascinated by the culture of the island. Parny was a fervent anti-colonialist and published his Chansons madécasses as a way of bringing Malagasy culture to the understanding of western readers. He claimed to have adapted his texts from a volume of Madagascar poems from the early eighteenth century, though it is now thought they were entirely his own creation. Parny described a world where the women were the workers and the men lived a life of ease. “They are passionate about music and dance; their songs are simple, lovely, and always melancholy.” The native form of expression was not poetry, but an elevated, florid prose which Parny recreated in his work. As a result, his Chansons madécasses became one of the earliest examples of prose poetry.
The Chansons madécasses are a musical exploration of a culture that the composer created primarily out of his imagination, and a social portrait of a place the poet never visited. From these elements emerges a work of great truth, and one whose early-1920s Modernism still startles the listener with its originality.
There are countless songs about my home town—I should know, I just listened about two hundred of them. The themes include our perfect bagels, the inconvenience of tourists, the nostalgia for buildings that have long been torn down, the disdain for other boroughs and nearby states.
But I wanted to avoid the clichés and capture the true spirit of New York through a series of character portraits. First up is Liza Elliott, the magazine editor who is the heroine of Lady in the Dark by Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, and Moss Hart. All of the show’s musical sequences are enactments of Liza’s dreams—she is in psychoanalysis because of her inability to make important decisions. “One Life to Live” is her exuberant hymn to life in her “Success Dream,” delivered as a soapbox speech at Columbus Circle.
We next meet Cathy, the heroine of Jason Robert Brown’s autobiographical musical The Last Five Years. We are with her at a series of unsuccessful musical theater auditions, as well as a lunch date with her father where she pours out her frustration. If you ever wondered what distracted thoughts flit through a performer’s mind when she is onstage, fasten your seatbelt and listen up. Jason Robert Brown’s song is devastatingly funny—and sad—and accurate.
“Through a Keyhole” was written for Irving Berlin’s smash hit revue As Thousands Cheer, but the song never made it to the stage. Its lyric was far too risqué for Depression-era Broadway, and it got cut. Berlin, of course, is best known for wholesome Americana like “God Bless America” and “Easter Parade.” But the man had a devilish sense of humor and could give Cole Porter a run for his money when it came to sexy innuendo—he (anonymously) wrote a verse for “You’re the Top” far more salacious than any of Porter’s lyrics for the song. To this day, “Keyhole” remains unpublished. It still has the power to raise an eyebrow or two.
“Litany” comes from one of John Musto’s first successes, the song cycle Shadow of the Blues. He wrote it for Christopher Trakas and me in 1985 to include on our Naumberg Award CD. Its blend of Italianate cantilena and New York blues make this a quintessential Musto tune. It is more meaningful than ever to hear Langston Hughes’ prayer for the poor people of our city. The poem is over 70 years old, the music more than 30 years old—yet they evoke contemporary New York with concise eloquence.
So does “I Happen to Like New York,” from Cole Porter’s 1930 show The New Yorkers. Here is the Manhattan I know—and the Manhattanite I am at heart, under my gentle exterior. The song is a New Yorker’s credo: you live here and the world comes to you. You take a trip abroad, i.e., you travel ten minutes across the Hudson, and you want to race home as soon as possible. Brash, confident, and wedded to the glories and indignities of city life—Porter fits it all perfectly into a New York minute.
These days the cuisine of every island in the entire world is available for takeout 24/7. Today we give you a multi-cultural musical meal, a Grubhub of song. It’s a bracing journey filled with upheavals, mysteries, hates and loves, war and peace—ending with a celebration of the island I call home, my beloved Manhattan.