San Juan, Puerto Rico, 27 March 2015
En la plaza del Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico
I’ve spent the last week of my life immersed in the splendor of Puerto Rican sunshine and hospitality, preparing for concerts this weekend with the magnificent Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico at the Sala Sinfónica Pablo Casals, under the baton of one of my favorite conductors, Maximiano Valdés (we are playing the Mozart Piano Concerto in C minor KV 491). Though I’ve been housed in a typical luxury hotel full of American tourists, I’ve had little time for the beach or mojitos. There have been practice hours, of course, rehearsals, and my favorite activity of all, digging into the musical culture of this beautiful tropical paradise.
Souvenir de Porto Rico is the title of one of the greatest piano showpieces of American composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869), an evocative mini-drama subtitled “March of the Gibaros,” referring to Spanish-Indian natives of Puerto Rico’s forested interior. Gottschalk was remarkably prescient in his ability to incorporate proto-rag and Afro-Caribbean rhythms into his piano music. And his pianistic adaptations found adherents in Latin America, perhaps most notably in two masters of the Caribbean Danza – Ignacio Cervantes (Cuban, 1847 – 1905) and Juan Morel Campos (Puerto Rican, 1857 – 1896).
The Danzas of Juan Morel Campos are among the most notoriously obscure piano scores of all, and thus it was with relish that I made my interest in this music clear upon my arrival in San Juan. In just a matter of days, the kind librarian of the Orquesta Sinfónica had obtained for me copies of five rare volumes of Campos’ music, originally published by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in 1958. My kind of souvenir!
My hotel desktop — Danzas, San Juan map, and hand-rolled robusto cigars
Playing through the 100 Danzas in these volumes over the past few days has been a fascinating experience. Firstly, how can one not be enchanted by the effusive titles of these rhythmic masterpieces — La niña bonita, ¡No me toques! and ¡Si te toco! (a pair), Sueño de amor, Sin tí Jamás, El gato flaco, and the like. Though Campos’ style is less windingly contrapuntal than Cervantes’, he freely indulges in complex cross-rhythms of 3 vs. 4 vs. 6 which must be felt in the belly, not parsed in the brain. So to say, one cannot play Puerto Rican Danzas without dancing. ¡Así bailar!
The icing on my pastel Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican cake) was a visit yesterday to the spectacular Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico. In addition to two large buildings replete with offices, practice rooms, a beautiful library and a magnificent concert hall named for legendary Puerto Rican pianist Jesús María Sanromá (1902 – 1984), the Conservatorio boasts an outdoor plaza with splendid views of the city of San Juan and its lovely harbor. There the students congregated with guitars and violins, chatting and sipping espresso con leche (I prefer mine sin azúcar) in the enveloping tropical air, under towering palm trees. Truly I felt there can be no more inviting atmosphere in which to study the musical art.
Entrance to the Conservatorio; Explaining a point en Español (y Inglés)
At the Conservatorio I gave a master class to the piano students of Prof. María del Carmen Gil, in the small recital hall. Prof. Gil is the remarkable force behind the building of the new wing of the Conservatorio, during her tenure as head of the school. I was impressed by her students’ beautiful playing of works by Haydn, Chopin, Debussy, and Prokofieff, as well as their welcoming nature and eagerness to learn. In return I treated them to a foxtrot of George Gershwin, but I wish I could have knocked off a few Danzas of Morel Campos instead. That will have to wait for next time, and I will surely return — for the tropical music of Puerto Rico is simply irresistible, indeed sabroso in all ways.