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Pura Magia

This review comes from Ionarts guest contributor Lindsay Heller.

Last night the Embassy Series presented the first of two performances by Cuban pianist Juana Zayas in the hall of the old Cuban Embassy. Although some might have agreed it felt as warm as Cuba in there, there is still no doubt in my mind that once the music began, everyone was too impressed to be thinking of anyone else but Ms. Zayas.

Juana Zayas, pianoI am almost ashamed to say I had not known anything about Ms. Zayas or her illustrious career until last night. She has been hailed as one of the “greatest living Chopin interpreters” and is a true musician with an absolutely amazing sense of musicality. Despite having a suburb technique that culminates in her performing many virtuoso programs, Ms. Zayas makes technical issues subordinate to the music itself, leaving her audience with sheer beauty and a greater appreciation for the construction of a piece of music. Although the arrival of three sons in rapid succession caused a temporary break in her career, I am sure anyone who witnessed her performance last night is all too happy that she emerged from her fifteen-year retirement.

Ms. Zayas offered a varied and musicologically important program that lasted two solid hours. Beginning with Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 331 (alla turca), she showed her brilliance from the first phrase she played. I have not seen many performances where everything just seems perfect: her dynamics, articulation, interpretation, control, technique –- you name it, she did it with ease. Her Chopin was just magnificent as well, with the highlights of that section being her interpretations of the Barcarolle, op. 60, and the Ballade in G Minor, op. 23. I do not even know if there is a word in any language that could accurately describe the beauty Ms. Zayas created on the piano.

After the intermission came what I was personally looking forward to: the music of some of Cuba’s more nationalist composers. (Okay; so there was some wonderful Ravel right before the Cuban music, but don’t you think most people came to the old Cuban Embassy to hear Cuban music by an actual Cuban?) In any case, I really have to praise Ms. Zayas for her selection of Cuban piano works, because she chose some of the landmark composers and their respective works from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries.

Beginning with some of the charming and short salon-like pieces by Ignacio Cervantes, here Ms. Zayas showed that she is the complete package: she has impeccable rhythm. Cervantes, like Miguel Saumell, was one of the first composers of the late nineteenth century to inject what most would call traditional Cuban rhythms into his music. One cannot help but take note of the habanera rhythms, the syncopations, and even a very early dose of Afro-Cuban rhythmic characteristics. Although these early nationalistic pieces are still very much related to their European counterparts of the time (for example, almost all of the Cervantes pieces performed follow the sixteen plus sixteen measure pattern of the contradanza), this music was the beginning of what one could finally call “Cuban music.”

After she had given the audience a sizeable dose of Cuban musical characteristics, I could not have agreed more with her choice to follow Cervantes with Alejandro García-Caturla’s Berceuse. García-Caturla, along with Amadeo Roldán, is credited with being the first to elevate Afro-Cuban culture in the eyes of society through music. (Shameless self-promotion: for more on Roldán, read my thesis!) Not only does this García-Caturla piece culminate in absolute beauty with its rich texture and harmony, this pastoral lullaby even contains elements of Cuban popular music. For the majority of the Berceuse, the left hand plays what is known as a montuno, which when broken down is no more than the rhythmic basis of a piece, essentially functioning like an ostinato. The right hand, however, played something that I hope the audience certainly heard as familiar: in case some of you did not catch it, listen to a recording of the Berceuse and then listen to an instrumental recording of “Guantanamera” and tell me if you hear any similarities....

I was personally elated to hear Ms. Zayas play five pieces by twentieth-century composer Gisela Hernández. Hernández, trained by some of the best in Cuban pedagogical and compositional history, is unfortunately not too well known in musical circles outside of Latin America. Although she studied at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, after returning to Cuba and the onset of the revolution, much of her work as a composer and teacher never really made it back to the United States. Two of the five pieces Ms. Zayas performed –- Cubanas para piano and Toque de clave -– were full of the fun and luscious dance rhythms that Cuba prides itself on. There was a lot of folk and popular material in all, especially in the constant use of the 3-2 clave rhythm that is prevalent in virtually all Cuban popular music, especially that of son and the better known Cuban-Puerto Rican amalgamation that is salsa.

Ms. Zayas concluded her spectacular program with four extremely important pieces by Ernesto Lecuona. Held in high regard as probably the most important musician-composer in Cuba during the first half of the twentieth century, Lecuona was an outstanding pianist (like Ms. Zayas) who very quickly made a name for himself internationally. He was a very busy man, between performing in all types of ensembles, helping to found the Havana Symphony Orchestra, writing film music, and composing in almost every genre possible. His piano works require great dexterity, an ardent sense of rhythm, and most of all, virtuosity. Ms. Zayas picked four of Lecuona’s works that can actually function as a survey of Cuban culture through music: A la Antigua harkens back to Cuba’s Spanish days, Danza de los ñáñigos and La comparsa equally display Cuba’s West African influence and how it blended with the Spanish, and finally La 32, which just culminates in what anyone can certainly see as being utterly Cuban in nature.

After raucous applause which was more than well deserved, Ms. Zayas came back out and promptly played two beautiful encores without even hesitating. (I do not know of many musicians who can play a program as long as demanding as she did and then just come back out and play encores so effortlessly.) All in all, the entire evening was a smashing success and a fabulous experience. The Cuban Interest Section did a marvelous job of hosting this event, and Jerome Barry and the Embassy Series did a fantastic job of making it happen. As if the music was not delightful enough, to follow there was a traditional Cuban dinner with all the trimmings in the formal dining room that was amazing. The food and the music brought back a lot of memories from my childhood, since part of my family is Cuban, and for that, no one could ever put a price tag on such an experience. Congratulations to the Embassy Series once again for making Washington, D.C., such a wonderful place to enjoy and learn about culture.


Princess Alpenrose said...

I was holding off on commenting, since I always seem to be commenting, to allow someone else to go first.

But I can't stand it - THANK YOU FOR THIS REVIEW! It really, really made me wish I had been there, and was a wonderful introduction to an artist I'd not heard of before. Good job!

Anonymous said...

You are doing a wonderful job of explaining concepts and missions and I appreciate it very much.


Jerome Barry
Director, The Embassy Series