The triumphant journey through music by the inimitable Paquito D’Rivera brought him to Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto on the 7th of December, 2018. He may not have been with his regular ensemble – including pianist Alex Brown and percussionist Mark Walker, among others – but he was surrounded by the majesty of the Harlem Quartet. The string ensemble comprising violinists Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador and cellist Felix Umansky may not be as well-known as some of the other string quartets, but their musicianship is magnificent nonetheless.
The cognoscenti may remember the Harlem Quartet from recordings they made with Chick Corea: Visionary (2014) and they were also featured on Mr Corea Hot House with Gary Burton (2012). They have also made several other recordings including a couple dedicated to music from Duke Ellington to Franz Schubert. Their last one was with clarinetist Eddie Daniels and is entitled Heart of Brazil: A Tribute to Egberto Gismonti (Resonance, 2018) which has been nominated for a 2018 Grammy® Award. How fortuitous then, that they should show up in Toronto for a concert they headlined with Mr D’Rivera.
It has been about fifty years since Paquito D’ Rivera defected from the Communist state of Cuba. He cited the constraints put on his performances of Jazz – considered “imperialist” music – as one of the reasons for leaving his country while on tour in Spain. But a darker memory was also the execution of his cousin by the revolutionary government. In truth the alluring island nation could never have held Mr D’Rivera in its embrace for too long anyway. His heart and his sound world are infinitely larger than anything that the Afro-Caribbean idiom could hold.
But clave and tumbao have bubbled in his blood and boiled over in his own music for decades including during his iconic years with the great Afro-Cuban ensembles such as Orchestra Cubana de Musica Moderna and then, in 1973, the group Irakere; both of which also featured another titan, Chucho Valdés. One of his most famous outings in music was as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra which left behind one of the finest big band records of all time: Live at the Royal Festival Hall (1989).
But Mr D’Rivera was a featured soloist with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra; in other words, he was a classical clarinetist before he played Afro-Cuban music and Jazz. And his credentials include a roster of some of the greatest symphony orchestras in the world: the National Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, Bronx Arts Ensemble, Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, YOA Orchestra of the Americas, Costa Rica National Symphony, American Youth Philharmonic, and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra to name but a few.
The Friday concert at Koerner Hall was more intimate and featured a selection that Mr D’Rivera has written and last played (and recorded) with the flutist Carlos Cano and pianist Hernán Milla on Por La Rivera de Paquito. Of this repertoire the most memorable were his selections – “Habanera” (Part IV) and Contradanza” (Part V) from his magnificent “Suite aires tropicales”. The other works included a magical rendition of “A Farewell Mambo” dedicated to the late great entertainer Guillermo Álvarez Guedes (1927-2013), a bedazzling joropo, “La fleur de cayenne” and an absolutely aching version of “Serenata cubana” dedicated to the legendary Cuban composer, Ignacio Cervantes.
Amid this repertoire – part of the second set – Mr D’Rivera was sublime, weaving his gossamer-like harmonies filled with breathtaking glissandi and combustible arpeggios into the soaring counterpoint created with the Harlem Quartet. The gravitas of Mr Amador’s viola and the often puckish cello of Mr Umansky became the gilded warp to the enchanted weft of the violins of Mr Gavilan and Miss White. It’s true that this was a sort of crescendo to the concert – or more appropriately-speaking, the “cherries” (or “icing”) on the proverbial cake.
However, in many respects the crowning glory may have already taken place during the first set, when the Quartet announced their intent with the ragtime music of William Bolcom, beginning with the spritely “Poltergeist” and then with the “Grateful Ghost Rag”. This was followed with a glowing interpretation of Claude Debussy’s “String Quartet in G Minor, op. 10” of which the Quartet played the second movement “Assez vif et bien rythmé”. Together these works served, as Mr Umansky told (and the Quartet memorably showed) us – the bridge to Jazz.
The absolute pinnacle came as Mr D’Rivera arrived on stage and the musicians launched into Carl Maria von Weber’s “Clarinet Quintet in B flat Major, op. 34”. This clarinet music is arguably the most significant legacy left by the composer which was originally written for Heinrich Bärmann, the brilliant principal clarinettist of the Munich Court Orchestra and who, incidentally, also inspired Mozart. The Quintet is extremely virtuosic and absolutely perfect for the vivid colours and burnished timbre of Mr D’Rivera who performed it to perfection on his legendary oxblood, Luis Rossi clarinet.
Its opening movement alternated between moments of introspection and a rather manic jauntiness. The mournful slow “Fantasia” conformed to the song-like nature of the composer’s slow movements. This was followed by the quirky “Menuetto” and the obligatory “Rondo” finale. It was in this segment that the performance of the Quartet and Mr D’Rivera attained its highest, rarefied realm. Their operatic brilliance and the extreme difficulty of the music were perfectly balanced by the roles of both entities.
The performance of the last “Rondo” movement, in particular, was a sensational battle for supremacy between the strings and clarinet; an altogether breathtaking performance of this incomparable work, so perfect for both the Harlem Quartet and for Paquito D’Rivera who both found a delicate balance between the flashy and the sensitive that Weber’s finest chamber works absolutely demands.
Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto
On Thursday, October 13, 2022, representing two generations of Cuban Piano Masters, Hilario Durán and David Virelles got together at Koerner Hall, one of the most magnificent concert venues in Toronto. They were celebrating the release (in Canada) of their new recording Front Street Duets (Alma Records), a project they started working on at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Both artists were extremely happy of releasing their duet album after these past two years of the unimaginable worldwide health crisis. They were also excited to be in Toronto, and for being able to accommodate their busy schedules to perform their music in front of a very enthusiastic audience. Durán and Virelles expressed their utmost respect and admiration for each other. David from an early age considered Hilario as one of his musical heroes, a musical giant and influential figure in Cuba, in Canada and abroad. Hilario considers David as one of the most important Cuban pianist of his generation, a big star shining globally, from the highly competitive musical scene in New York.
The concert got started started with Epistrophy, the first tune copyrighted by Thelonious Monk, followed by Sophisticated Lady / In A Sentimental Mood, two compositions by Duke Ellington. Next, Durán and Virelles performed four tunes from their new album: 1. Danza Lucumí, (beautifully arranged by Virelles), a song written by Alejandro García Caturla, a Cuban composer who together with Amadeo Roldán, are considered the leaders of Afro-cubanismo, a nationalist musical trend that incorporates Afro-Cuban songs, rhythms, and dances. 2. Challenge, a new composition by Durán. 3. La Malanga (also arranged by Virelles), a composition by Calixto Varona, one of the most important composers from Santiago de Cuba from the XIX century. 4. Guajira For Two Pianos, the first track on the album Front Street Duet, a fiery composition written by Durán.
The first set came to an end with Airegin (an anadrome of Nigeria), a jazz standard composed by American saxophonist Sonny Rollins in 1954.
The second part of the concert started with a solo performance by David Virelles, Canción Estudio, composed by José Antonio “Ñico” Rojas, a prominent Cuban composer and guitarist, considered as one of the founders of the style of Cuban song called filin. Then it was Durán’s turn for an inspired solo performance of Autumn Nocturne (a notable composition written by Russian-born Josef Myrow with Kim Gannon). Durán had previously recorded this tune on his 1999 Justin Time Records release Habana Nocturna, a superb album that feature acclaimed saxophonist, flautist and bandleader Jane Bunnett, and drummer extraordinaire Horacio “El Negro” Hernández.
Next, both pianists performed a set of four pieces written by Hilario Durán for the recording Front Street Duets. 1. David’s Tumbao, a composition dedicated to David Virelles. Durán is well known for his fiery tumbao style when he’s playing. 2. Punto Cubano #1, inspired on the genre of Cuban music known as punto guajiro or punto cubano, a poetic art with music that became popular in the western and central regions of Cuba in the 17th century and consolidated as a genre in the 18th century. 3. Santos Suárez’s Memories pays tribute to the Havana neighbourhood where Durán grew up, where he fell in love with the piano and became a musician. It brings back cherished memories involving his upbringing, his family and close friends. 4. Milonga For Cuba, a very special tribute dedicated to the people who protested in Havana last summer 2021.
For the encore, Durán and Virelles interpreted a wonderful rendition of Body And Soul, a popular song and jazz standard written in 1930 with music by Johnny Green and lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton. Body and Soul is the track that closes the album Front Street Duets, and also brought to an end a tremendous musical night at Koerner Hall in Toronto.
Photographs by Danilo Navas
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