FIU Music Festival opens in rousing Cuban program with a lot of Lecuona

By Lawrence Budmen

Music of Ernesto Lecuona was performed at the FIU Music Festival’s opening concert Wednesday night at Wertheim Concert Hall.

The music of Ernesto Lecuona took center stage at the opening concert of the FIU Music Festival Wednesday night.

Tomas Y. Tirino, one of the Cuban composer’s greatest exponents, was the featured soloist at FIU’s Wertheim Concert Hall. In a program dubbed “Celebrating Cuban Music,” it was entirely appropriate that a tribute to the country’s most celebrated musical creator of the 20th century be presented.

The concert opened with Hollywood film score icon John Williams’ stirring arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner (wherein an original orchestral introduction is followed by a Technicolor version of the National Anthem). The patriotic confection was sung with fervor by the combined forces of the FIU Concert Choir, Encantus Voices and the Miami Children’s Chorus with the FIU Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Javier Jose Mendoza.

FIU School of Music Dean Karen S. F. Veloz announced that Tirino was donating his collection of Lecuona scores to the music school and library—a major coup for the Miami university.

Tirino has recorded the complete piano works of Lecuona for the Bis label. He has researched, edited and restored many of the composer’s scores as well as transcribing keyboard versions of some pieces from Lecuona’s recordings and broadcasts. 

The pianist opened with his completion of Lecuona’s 1937 Rapsodia Negra. The original score did not have percussion parts or solo cadenzas which Tirino added. Based on themes from Lecuona’s zarzuelas El Cafetal, El Batey and El Torente, the work abounds in Afro-Cuban rhythms and virtuosic keyboard volleys.

Tirino’s idiomatic flair for this music is hard to surpass. His playing was both delicately nuanced and grandly scaled. The big bravura climaxes registered with surging impact. Mendoza and the large orchestra were totally in synch with Tirino, the sonority lustrous and the dance melodies articulated with zest.

Rapsodia Cubana is a relatively late Lecuona opus, dating from 1955. Only fragments of the original orchestration exist and the finale was never written out. Tirino completed the instrumental writing and added a finale from Lecuona’s recording of Rapsodia Tropical. The resulting medley of popular Cuban songs and dances is utterly charming. Tirino played the cavalcade of tunes with the fluency of a cabaret pianist. He brought elegance and incisive dynamism to this skillfully crafted potpourri.

Andalucia Suite was Gordon Jenkins’ arrangement of the main themes from Lecuona’s piano suite rather than a literal transcription. From the 1930’s through the 1980’s Jenkins was one of the top studio arrangers and conductors. He recorded with Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and Judy Garland among many others. His lush string and wind writing adds its own window dressing to Lecuona’s memorable themes. The concluding version of “Malagueña” gave the brass and percussion a real workout.

Lecuona’s Rumba Rapsodia (dating from 1943) existed only in an incomplete piano-vocal score that was never performed. Tirino wrote the texts and orchestrated the material with Michael Bartos. While he recorded the score in 1997 as part of his Lecuona series on the BIS label, this performance was the piece’s concert premiere. It is a rather slight creation, definitely not top-drawer Lecuona. The feathery lightness of Tirino’s touch made the best case for the work. The three singers (sopranos Laura Leon and Vindhya Khare and mezzo-soprano Erika Vasallo) had fine voices but they were over amplified, causing balance problems with the orchestral and choral ensemble. The chorus, full voiced and robust, was strong and cohesive. Choral directors Erynn Millard,  Maibel Troia and Liana Salinas clearly did a fine job of preparing the young vocalists.

For an encore, Tirino played a lilting rendition of Lecuona’s “Damisela Encantadora” with chorus and some of the audience joining in on the refrain.

The program’s second half opened with a new arrangement by Javier Concepcion of “Himno de Bayamo” by Pedro Figueredo, the Cuban National Anthem. Tirino joined the mass voices in a fervent performance. 

The remainder of the program was devoted to Cuban popular music, mostly by Benny Moré. Guitarist-vocalists Julio Martinez and Eber Herrera, percussionist Tony Succar and Concepcion on piano joined the orchestra. A highly syncopated arrangement by Tarcisio Barreto of Moisés Simons’ “El Manisero” (The Peanut Vendor) was especially engaging.

The FIU Music Festival presents pianist Kemal Gekic, Lindsay Garritson and Silvije Vidovic in music of Chopin and Liszt 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wertheim Concert Hall in Miami.

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Thu Oct 21, 2021
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