FearNoMusic/Cascadia Composers review: unbounded creativity

Music by contemporary classical Cuban composers displays sophisticated combinations of traditional influences and a distinctive sense of time


American audiences embrace the dynamic rhythms and energy of Cuban jazz, with its variety of instrumentation and diverse percussion. But we are much less familiar, ignorant even, of the “classical” music tradition of the Cuban people through the 20th century into the 21st.

This limited view reflects Americans wider misperceptions of Cuba, which accentuates the country’s isolation, impoverished state, and personal restrictions. Images of antiquated cars and crumbling buildings mistakenly give some people the idea that a place with such difficult living conditions would be creatively limited.

FearNoMusic’s string quarter performed in Cascadia Composers’ ‘New Pearls from the Antilles’ concert. Photo: Matias Brecher.

FearNoMusic’s May 19 concert at Northeast Portland’s Temple Baptist Church, presented by Cascadia Composers, challenged such assumptions. And it even featured a distinctive musical element I miss in too many contemporary classical music concerts.

Cuba’s half-century estrangement from the United States didn’t stifle the development of its classical music. For centuries, music has evolved and developed without the worldwide dissemination and knowledge we take for granted today. Also, Castro’s government made culture and art a priority, significantly increasing the investment in music education. The pattern of rigor required of Cuban music students is reminiscent of the 16th century, with many training through childhood to be professional musicians – most have a conservatory education. The establishment of the Cuban National School of Art in 1961 made arts education a right for people of all classes, which is consistent with UNESCO’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a far more democratic perspective than arts education in the United States.

When I visited Havana in 2016, I was struck by the resulting cohesion of the musicians and ensembles I heard. Whereas typical American music students primarily study and listen to the music of the past, I was told that Cuban musicians are taught the music of the past, but studiously listen to the music of the present.

Shattering Stereotypes

According to their program notes, the composers represented in this concert — the third in a circle of musical events connecting Cascadia Composers’ presentation of Northwest new music in Havana last November, to this performance of Cuban art music in Portland six months later — take their inspiration from life around them today. All are highly accomplished, with international exposure, performances and awards. Their music in this concert revealed sophisticated compositional influences.

Anyone expecting a conventional sounding piano trio would be pleasantly surprised by En Homenaje a un Platáno Maduro (Homage to a Ripe Plantain) by Javier Iha Rodrígue. The three movements were inspired by different musical styles and, loosely, by the works of Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos and Bartok: the first with energetic driving rhythms, the second slow movement evolving through imitation with neo-romantic allusions, and the exciting third concluding with (in the words of the composer) “a harmonically fractured cha-cha-cha in the piano.”

In the playful yet serious Preludio y Tumbao (Prelude and Tumbao) for two violas, distinguished composer José Loyola Fernández’s techniques of counterpoint, imitation and dovetailing (i.e one theme overlapping with another) created a lyrical piece peppered with effective gestures, exploring the violas’ full range. The title term refers to one of the basic Afro-Cuban rhythms.

A loud opening downbow gesture opening took the audience by surprise in Inconguencias (Inconsistencies), the first of a series of five string quartets written by the composer Ariannys Mariaño Lalana. Diverse motives and materials created blended and contrasting sections leading the listeners along. Built on a solid foundation of diverse compositional techniques, Inconguencias breaks the string quartet mold, firmly taking its place in the 21st century.

Havana composer José Gavilondo Peón spoke at Cascadia Composers’ pre-concert panel discussion at Portland’s Temple Baptist Church. Photo: Matias Brecher.

“Dreams don’t make sense,” wrote José Gavilondo Peón about his Half-Remembered Dreams. “This music…shouldn’t either.” The performance of this disjunctive piece fulfilled the composer’s intention. The seven movements each describe a dream that isn’t quite complete. The gestures were sparse, dynamic, highly articulated and in places pointillistic. Endings of some movements occurred unexpectedly. True to his intent, the piece would not have made any sense without the program notes as an aid.

I was once told that composing a flute solo is a futile effort, that only a couple of exceptional pieces have been created – the rest trail far behind. Lalana’s second piece on the program, Soliloquio (Soliloquy), refuted that assertion. While Ms. Lalana alludes to questions about plastic and theatrical realities – examining the shaping of relationships between performer, audience and performance space – her use of extended technique is not extreme. Her well-crafted techniques fit the musical expressiveness of the piece, which explores the full range of the instrument’s capabilities.

Both in impetus and style, the second string quartet of the evening, Tríptico Cubano (Cuban Triptych), connected with me the most. Written by the youngest composer of the program, twenty-year old Jorge Amado Molina, the three movements, “Monte (Jungle),” “Culebras, (Snakes)” and “Sol (Sun)” come from a satirical family expression representing Cuban characteristics. The most lyrical piece of the evening, its motives played off of each other, then in contrast, came together in a satisfying blending of sound. The third movement energetically propelled the listeners to the very end.

Composer Guido López-Gavilán founded Havana’s University of the Arts and has conducted every orchestra in Cuba. Rooted in the Habanera and Contradanza genres, his fresh and engaging Habana Sensual y Contradanza Caprichosa (Sensual Habana and capricious contra dance) takes us back to one of the first Cuban genres to emerge in the early 19th century. Composed for violin, viola and cello, it opened with an impressionistic atmosphere surrendering to a stirring Contradanza. It evolves with lyrical contrasting sections. Unexpected instrumental gestures passed from one to another, drawing the listener in. The effect is a fusion of convention and surprise.

Composer Juan Piñera, who leads the Department of Composition at Cuba’s University of the Arts, describes El Bolero de Ravel Según Juan Piñera (Ravel’s “Bolero” after Juan Piñera)  “as pastiche” and fun. Appropriating Ravel’s Bolero, he evocatively assimilates into the piece Spanish and Mexican songs popular during his childhood. The piece for violin, viola and piano is filled with dichotomous elements. Piñera allows the Bolero theme to unfold in the midst of these other influences. Like Ravel’s original, the piece builds. The familiar melody contrasts and floats over polytonal centers both dissonant and resonant. At points the melody disappears entirely. For those of us acquainted with Ravel’s Bolero, trying to follow this piece was like trying to follow a fish in a stream. It is also one of those pieces I would like to hear over and over.

Those in the too-small audience who expected to hear provincial music from an impoverished isolated Caribbean island were blown away. Fresh and sophisticated, serious and fun, these very contemporary pieces by composers with world-class skills dazzled those of us in attendance. All the performers of FearNoMusic really sought to bring the musical spirit of these wonderful contemporary Cuban works to life.

I was especially struck by the composers’ expression of the crucial musical element of duration. It ties back to the way that Cubans are taught to listen. Whereas so many new music pieces feel like they’re moving metrically, barline by barline, most of the pieces in this concert created a sense of flow that made me totally lose track of time. These pieces floated. We saw it during their performances in Cuba, and here, with Portland musicians, we in the audience felt it. As a composer, I look forward to learning more about these wonderful composers and their work. Oregon should get to hear more.

Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted composer and explorer whose work reflects a diversity of styles and points of view. Passionate about composing about place and the human experience, she actively seeks to integrate facets of landscape, cultural history and art into her work.

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