Lied, programs, connecting threads and energy …

It was sometime in the Spring-early Summer of 2006, just about five years ago. I was pretty deep inside my cavern, working on the Rumor de Páramo pieces that I had then – if memory serves, Jack Fortner and Charles Griffin of the US, Tomás Marco and Carlos Cruz de Castro of Spain, Horacio Uribe, Georgina Derbez and Marcela Rodríguez of México … I can’t remember which others. I’d come down to the center from the tiny studio in which I was living at the time, and passed through one of the principal watering-holes of the time, the Café Zilch of blessed memory, into which the Café Dada, also of blessed memory, had metamorphosed. NOT morphed. Is that even a word? Good heavens.

Anyway, I bumped into a former student – I still remember that it was Paúl León, a very gifted young Guanajuato composer. Just to give you an idea: Paúl felt very little affinity for the piano, surely as a result of poor instruction received to complete the obligatory piano part of his long struggled-for composition degree. Long struggled-for, I should add, not because of any inadequacy on his part but rather because of the extraordinary inadequacy of the school in which he had the misfortune to be enrolled. Anyway, his solution to this problem was to undertake the composition of pieces for STUDENT pianists. It was a solution which awed me with its imagination, humility and tenderness.

So Paúl, knowing that I was in the very middle of this enormous commissioning and recording project, asked me very gently how it was going. I’d just come out of my cave, remember, come down to the center to buy fruits and veggies and probably coffee; and so I was naked, in a way, no social defenses in place; as one is at moments like that. And anyway, it was Paúl, who asked me that question, with that sweet wry smile; so I was disposed to be honest. I suddenly realized that I was VERY tired. It was the kind of tired that comes after running slightly more than you thought you could, or than you planned to; a good tired from which you need only a little rest to return with renewed energy – but tired. Probably Paúl, as smart and intuitive as he is, asked my WHY it was so tiring. I’d been thinking about that myself: heavens, I have learned many, many notes in my time, bonded with much music of many many voices – why, I had indeed been asking myself, was this so tiring? At that moment, with Paúl in the Zilch, I realized why, as the words jumped out of my mouth: it was like learning a whole recital of lieder. So many different voices, so many different vocabularies, and each piece so intense, an entire world unto itself. As an interpreter, you have to transform yourself into a different being with each piece: an enormous effort of imagination and concentration.

What this comes down to is programming – I mean, how to organize a program. I think about this a lot, and surely, given the number of my colleagues who do really interesting programming, I am not alone. I share wholeheartedly the metaphor of wonderful Mexican guitarist Juan Carlos Laguna: that a musical program is like a meal. It must be carefully –lovingly!— designed so as to whet and gratify the palate, from start to finish. 

But I think I’d never thought about this so specifically as like a recital of LIEDER, until that moment. Curiously, once I voiced that idea, the fatigue became manageable. As often happens in such situations, I’d come to understand the phenomenon: now we were friends.

This idea surfaced several years afterwards, when I came into communication with another of those writers whom I’m privileged to have in my circle of acquaintances – Joseph Mailander. He remarked, in one email, that he was struck by how I’d organized the order of the pieces in my REDCAT recital in Los Angeles, and by the order of the pieces on the two Rumor recordings – as though, he said, they were a recital of lieder. SO amazing! And particularly when talking about a recording, good heavens. Am I a “classical” pianist who still believes in what the R&R world calls a “concept album”? Heavens.

This idea continues to be very alive, with Canto de la Monarca / Song of the Monarch, my current commissioning and recording project. 

Since sometime in 1998, I’ve wanted to make a program called Songs of Love and Despair/ Canciones de Amor y Desesperación. Somehow other ideas were always on the front burner; but the memory remained alive. Really, I suppose, all music is about this, because these are the two poles, aren’t they: Eros and Thanatos. 

Now, with some of this Monarca music, I’ve finally made a program with that title. (Probably there will be more than one, but we shall see.) There are two hilos-conector –connecting threads— of which first and foremost is the idea of SONG. Not just of song but of THE VOICE – since CPE Bach, with his fundamental and primordial loyalty to the voice and its expressive qualities, is one of the wellsprings of this program. The other is this somewhat amorphous notion of VERSIONS of songs. In Spanish we have this term, versión. It is delicately but definitively distinct from the English translation or paraphrase. In English, the R&R term “cover” is the closest we come. 

Liszt, deeply moved by the lieder of Schubert and of Schumann, made versiones for solo piano of many of these songs – all of Winterreise, for starters!. In English we say “transcription” but I find the Spanish versión more in tune with my personal perception of these amazing pieces. 

I decided to put some of these Liszt versions into dialogue with several of the Monarca pieces which, as it happens, are also versiones of various kinds. 

La Malinche, Paul Barker’s Monarca piece –which amazingly manages to be both voluptuous and austere, as well as movingly triumphant— is a versión of an aria from his own opera of the same name, dating from the ‘80s. In his program note for the piece, Paul says of the opera that it “was written for 3 soloists (Malinche, Cortés and Xicoténcatl) and a ten-part chorus of six sopranos and 4 baritones, each with a named part, who act also as an orchestra. The only instruments are two trumpeters who play conch-shells and one percussionist, who perform on stage with the cast, who sing in Nahuátl, Latin, Spanish and English”. 

There is a moment when you can very clearly hear the trumpets – if you can’t, something is lacking in my piano-playing. 

So the whole second half was versiones. It started with Lágrimas y Locuras (Tears and Madness): Mapping the mind of a Madwoman, JOELLE WALLACH’s amazing and Lisztian piece, which is a Fantasy –a versión of— La llorona.

Then, Liszt’s versión of the first song of Schubert’s Winterreise: Gute Nacht (variously translated as Good night or Farewell). A man walking alone in a winter night, remembering lost happiness.

Because this is a profound downer, altho’ very beautiful, I followed with Liszt’s versión of Schumann’s Widmung (from his cycle Myrthen) usually translated as Dedication. Heart-stoppingly beautiful evocation of total love and exaltation. Sorry for the purple prose but no other way to describe it. 

And I ended with Barker’s La Malinche. Austere, voluptuous, proud. 

Well, not quite ended: since they wouldn’t let me go and I didn’t want to either, my encore was the last of Nin-Culmell’s 12 Cuban Dances, itself a versión of 19th-century Cuban composer Ignacio Cervantes’ No llores más (Don’t cry anymore). Cool programming, if I do say so myself.

It enchants me that these pieces are so clearly in a tradition which Liszt basically invented.

I opened with a Scarlatti Sonata which for me is all about delicacy and seduction, and an affectionate “so long, hasta luego”; then STEPHEN MCNEFF’s fabulous An Evening with doña Eduviges: a Fantasy. They have in common lightning changes in Affekt, delicacy and seduction also. McNeff ranges from spidery-silvery almost-nothing sound to sudden brutality to some of his patented gorgeous melodies. At the end, a grave solo which at first I thought was a soliloquy but which, after spending some time with the piece, I realized is a dialogue. A grave dialogue –as I wrote him a while back—from the grave. Those of you who know Pedro Páramo will understand this. Those of you who don’t, check it out. The good English translation is by Margaret Sayers Peden and is published by Grove.

Then there was CPE Bach –see that earlier entry—one of the great loves of my musical life. This is a somewhat early Sonata, dating from his Berlin days, but has within it the seeds of the greatness that happened only a few years later. It is Innocence and Experience. In both sections of the first movement, it strays momentarily into the minor: like a premonition of what Life might bring. The second movement is terribly sad. In the third movement the sun comes out again and we are happy again … tho’ less innocent now, I feel, than at the beginning of the first movement. 

Berg, Silvia Cabrera Berg … about this piece I will write more extensively. For now, suffice to say: rigorous architecture, worthy of CPE Bach, with a wild lyricism and love atop it that –now that it’s memorized, this splendid piece—really fly. There is a moment when the wings start to beat, wings that scarcely imagine how powerful they are … and when they take off, when they take flight, it is an awesome moment. Silvia said to me, “I suppose it is a rather romantic piece. Well, love IS romantic.” 

And desperate too, especially when it goes away. But “better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all” – I wish I could remember which poet said that. I suppose that is what this program is all about.