Multi-talented Cuban composer, guitarist and conductor Leo Brouwer turned 70 on March 1; Brouwer is perhaps the most renowned of living Cuban composers, and this inspired us to take a look back at some of the Cuban composers throughout history who have made lasting contributions to the world of concert music.
Leo Brouwer began to compose in 1955 at age 16, and even in those early years produced works of high quality such as his Danza Caracteristica (1957), regarded today as a classical guitar standard. Although he took guitar instruction and studied composition with Vincent Persichetti at Juilliard, Brouwer considers himself an autodidact. In 1961, Brouwer participated in the Warsaw Autumn Festival in Poland and came in contact with the music of composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Iannis Xenakis, and the integration of experimental styles marks the next phase of his career. From 1976 he entered into his mature vein, which Brouwer calls "New Simplicity;" it encompasses input from popular and classical music, Afro-Cuban music and the avant-garde.
A hand injury interrupted Brouwer's career as guitar soloist, and while he has recovered, Brouwer has moved into conducting. He was general manager of the Havana Symphony Orchestra for a decade, and was founder and first conductor of the Orquestra Cordoba in Spain; Brouwer has written at least eight guitar concertos, numerous works for other combinations and over 60 film scores, including those for A Walk in the Clouds and Like Water for Chocolate. Classical guitarists are not the only players who get something out of Brouwer; Ozzy Osbourne's late guitarist Randy Rhoads nicked a lick from one Brouwer's etudes for use in the song "Diary of a Madman."
Eduardo Fernandez, guitar -- Brouwer: Danza Caracteristica
Los Angeles Guitar Quartet -- Brouwer: Cuban Landscape with Rain
Graham Anthony Devine, guitar -- Brouwer: Hika "In Memoriam Toru Takemitsu"
Born in Havana on Christmas Day, 1725, Esteban Salas (1725-1803) was Cuba's first great native-born composer of sacred music. Little is known about his life, other than from 1764 he was the chief music instructor and kapellmeister at the Cathedral in Santiago de Cuba. Salas was ordained as a priest in 1790, and he retired in 1798, though he continued to compose into the next century. Salas' extraordinarily beautiful sacred music was unknown until the late 1940s, when Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier began to assess and to revive his scores.
Maria Felicia Perez, Coro Exaudi de Cuba -- Salas: Un musiquito nuevo
While NicolÃ¡s Ruiz Espadero (1832-1890) may have been the first Cuban nationalist composer, it was Ignacio Cervantes (1847-1905) that helped to establish a national identity in Cuban music. Studying with Espadero and American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Cervantes completed his education in Paris at the Conservatoire. Cervantes composed two operas, a zarzuela, a symphony and numerous chamber works, but it was his collection of 45 Danzas Cubanas, compiled in 1895, that has carried Cervantes' reputation into the future. Cervantes' settings helped to codify the loose, traditional Cuban dance forms into a common musical text, albeit spiced with the influence of Spanish music and betraying the pianistic preferences of his teacher Gottschalk.
Ruben Pelaez, piano -- Cervantes: Por Que, eh?
Like George Gershwin, Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) easily trod the boundaries that separated classical music for popular, and most of his output can be treated either way. A superb pianist, Lecuona made his New York debut in 1916, however it was in Paris in the late 1920s that Lecuona established his international popularity with pieces such as MalagueÃ±a (1928), Canto de Siboney (1928) and AndalucÃa (1927), the latter becoming the English-language popular song "The Breeze and I." Lecuona's work list is so vast and complex it remains difficult to assess his work as a whole, but he wrote many formal and semi-formal pieces, including zarzuelas, ballets, concertos, orchestral and chamber works. The charanga (i.e. a typical, meat and potatoes Cuban dance band) known as the Lecuona Cuban Boys took their name after him, with his permission, though Lecuona was not its leader.
Ernesto Lecuona, piano -- Lecuona: MalagueÃ±a
Alfredo Brito y su Orquestra -- Lecuona: Canto de Siboney
Thomas Tirino, piano; Michael Bartos, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Slovak Philharmonic Chorus -- Lecuona: Rumba-Rhapsody
Amadeo RoldÃ¡n (1900-1939) was the father of Cuban modernism; when his ballet La Rebambaramba (1928) was conducted by Ernest Ansermet in Paris, RoldÃ¡n became the first Cuban composer of serious music to be heard in the concert halls of Europe. RoldÃ¡n was greatly interested in percussion, and his RitmicÃ¡s Nos. 5 and 6 (1930) appear to be the first Western musical works for predominantly non-pitched percussion, and without piano; RoldÃ¡n is also credited with adding the claves and guiro to the concert percussionist's arsenal of instruments. RoldÃ¡n was from 1927 conductor and later music director of the Havana Philharmonic and taught composition at the Havana Municipal Conservatory; after the revolution, it was renamed the Amadeo RoldÃ¡n Conservatory in his honor. Amadeo RoldÃ¡n died of cancer at the age of 38.
Jeffrey Fischer, University of Massachusetts Lowell Percussion Ensemble -- RoldÃ¡n: RitmicÃ¡ No. 6
Alejandro GarcÃa Caturla (1906-1940) was a close associate of RoldÃ¡n; they met as symphony musicians in the Havana Philharmonic under Pedro SanjuÃ¡n, with whom Caturla also took composition lessons. Caturla was a very different composer from RoldÃ¡n; while RoldÃ¡n was impacted by the futuristic and neo-classic music he heard in Paris, Caturla's highly personal, original and eccentric orchestral music betrays no clear-cut affinity with Western styles though it bears some commonality of approach with composers like Charles Ives and Caturla's Mexican contemporary Silvestre Revueltas. Yet in other pieces, Caturla can be deceptively simple and enchanting. With RoldÃ¡n, Caturla was a member of Henry Cowell's Pan-American Association of Composers and organized concerts of modern music in Cuba; he also played in a jazz band and founded a symphonic band in his home base of Remedios. Married to two wives, to help support his family of 11 children Caturla was serving as a part time judge; in this role, his career was cut short when he was shot to death at age 34 by an accused criminal hoping to forestall a lengthy prison sentence.
Joel Sachs, Camerata de las AmÃ©ricas -- Caturla: Cuban Suite No. 1
Nohema FerenandÃ©z, piano -- Berceuse Campesina
Damaso Perez Prado (1916-1989) is remembered best as "El Rey del Mambo" (King of the Mambo), but he composed two concert pieces in extended form. The first one was a collaboration with jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers, Voodoo Suite (1954), and it is one of the most astounding crossover compositions of all time, literally extending Afro-Cuban dance music, drumming and singing into extended development forms; it is years ahead of its time. Prado made his name in Mexico City's dancehalls in the years following World War II with the mambo, but neither his music nor he were Mexican; the mambo had been introduced in Cuba in the late 1930s, a development credited to Israel "Cachao" Lopez. Heavily influenced by Stan Kenton, Prado moved to Los Angeles in 1951 and often complained that American music copyists sanitized patented dissonant effects he had specially devised for his band of five trumpets, five saxophones, piano, bass and 10 percussion. Although he did not invent Mambo, the music is forever associated with him; its irresistible mix of the primitive, popular, complex and rhythmic has even led some European classical chamber ensembles to take it up. Dilo!
Perez Prado and Shorty Rogers -- Voodoo Suite
Sinfonietta Ventus -- Prado: Mambo Suite
Born in Havana, composer Tania LÃ©on has made her home in the United States since 1967; she first came to prominence as music director of the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969. Later she worked as organizer of the Brooklyn Philharmonic's Community Concert Series and in the 1990s she served as New Music Advisor to the New York Philharmonic and co-founded a festival devoted to Latin concert music held by the American Composers Orchestra. She has conducted all over the world, and her works have garnered considerable acclaim, such as her opera Scourge of Hyacinths (1994-1999), the chamber orchestra piece Desde...(2001) and her Drummin' (1997), a four-hour, multimedia work for multiple ensembles that has been given numerous times. Today, LÃ©on is a distinguished professor at the City University of New York and her ballet Inura (2009) has just been premiered by DanÃ§a Brasil. The piano piece Mistica became the first work of LÃ©on's to be heard in her native Havana when pianist Ursula Oppens played it there in 2003.
David Snell, Foundation Philharmonic Orchestra -- LÃ©on: BatÃ¡ for orchestra
Mari Kimura, violin and electronics -- LÃ©on: Axon, for violin and interactive computer
Despite its international -- and controversial -- significance in world politics, Cuba is a small nation; though it is the largest island in the Caribbean, it still only measures 42,803 square miles in area. That Cuba has managed to nuture and cultivate such an extraordinary range of musical talent, and to introduce key musical styles that have taken root everywhere, is something that is itself worth celebrating.