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Concert Reviews

World Premiere of “Sinfonía Afrocubana” For Trio and Orchestra by Hilario Durán

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hilario-duran-sinfonia-afro-cubana-01-640x360The term “legend” is usually reserved for a revered musician who is long gone. However, there are times when you must apply this to someone living and active and doing absolutely wonderful things with his gift of and genius for music. Hilario Durán is one such musician. When Mr. Durán came to Canada from Cuba in 1998 he came with credentials that went before him. His compatriot and pianist maestro Chucho Valdés had this to say about him: “Hilario Durán is an unparalleled pianist, as well as being a composer and arranger of the first order… one of the greatest Cuban pianists of the 20th century”. He might have included this century as well. Praise such as this does not come easily from a musician as great as Mr. Valdés.

But if there’s anyone who deserves to be so celebrated it is Mr. Durán. But here’s the thing: some musicians might rest on their laurels (and the pianist wears many) and become complacent and glib. But not Hilario Durán. With his quicksilver mind, as sharp as a rapier, he has continued to go from strength to strength, performing and producing many magnificent albums with his own trio that includes Roberto Occhipinti on bass and Mark Kelso on drums, and also with the great soprano saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett. Perhaps one of his greatest assets has always been composing and arranging music.

This year, Hilario Durán returned to a setting he has perfected like few other musicians: writing for the large ensemble. And this was not simply for a large ensemble, but one as stellar as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. To celebrate the many facets of Pan-American Culture and in time for the Pan-American Games, Mr. Durán was commissioned by the TSO to write a concerto for Orchestra and Trio through support from the Esther Gelber Fund. Sinfonía Afrocubana was the result of that commission. The world premiere of this iconic 19-minute piece took place at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on April 29, 2015. It was performed by a superbly rehearsed Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maestro Roberto Minczuk and Hilario Durán’s trio of repute.

The music for the Sinfonía was a searing performance that also featured Joaquín Hidalgo on batá drums. This, in addition to glorious and melismatic writing, conjured vivid images of the Afro-Cuban heritage of its composer, and also celebrated the forthcoming event for which it was written. However, Mr. Durán writes in a veritable Babel-like language. Here as elsewhere he has refused to be constrained by artificial boundaries that peg his music into boxes. With the lines that separate contemporary jazz, classical and Afro-Caribbean music blurred the music soared like a proverbial condor.

hilario-duran-sinfonia-afro-cubana-02-640x360This intriguing work was based on the bembé, a 6/8 rhythmic pattern that emanated in Africa, but was absorbed into the many-splendoured Cuban musical topography. To bring the rhythmic aspect of the composition to life the ensemble featured the three batá drums, Okónkolo, Itótele, and Iyá, sacred percussion instruments used in the Santeria worship unique to Cuba. Remarkably Joaquín Hidalgo performed on all three drums. And the heavens seemed to open as the Sentir was sent up to worship the munificence of the Creator – Afro-Cuban style.

This first movement of the Sinfonía began with a dramatic unison passage featuring the trio and the entire orchestra. After a melismatic piano cadenza, the trio and percussionist Joaquín Hidalgo introduced the main theme, a rich and molten mix of the musics of the world from Cuba and America to Europe and back. This was followed by a series of calls and responses and dramatic dialogues between orchestra and trio, developing the piece through melodic and rhythmic inventions.

This was followed by the second movement that borrowed from many traditional Cuban folk forms heralded again by a breathtaking cascade of piano cadenzas. The orchestra responded with crisp retorts and introduced the trio that proceeded to develop on the stated Afro-Cuban themes and forms. Again, Mr. Hidalgo was featured and he gave a fantastic account of himself in the breathtaking array of colours he brought to his percussion battery. Mark Kelso followed with a predictably superb solo with the orchestra. After a large tutti declaration the movement was brought to a close with a solo bass cadenza from Roberto Occhipinti.

The third and final movement was based on the classic rhythm of the dancing son montuno danzón, accompanied by plush strings in the memorable style of George Gershwin. After what was a beautiful and interminable piano cadenza, the full orchestra entered playing themes in which Afro-Cuban bembé and Spanish flamenco styles were highlighted. This was followed by a dazzling display of the trio playing modern jazz, which finally led to a restatement of the main theme of the first movement to end Sinfonía Afrocubana. And so ended not only a memorable event, but also another triumph for the great maestro Hilario Durán.

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Concert Reviews

Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto

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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.

Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto
Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto

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.

Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto

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.

Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto

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.

Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto

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.

Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto

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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