Repost of an evening at the americas society
November 24, 2014
The Americas Society first entered my radar back in June, when I hauled my flute out of the closet to play in their Make Music NY event, an all-flute performance of Henry Brant’s Mass for June 16. Conducted by Sebastian Zubieta (except during the parts where he’d drop his arms and let us navigate ourselves, at our separate chosen tempos, to the section finishes), we made our way through the simple, free-floating melodies while standing in a circle in Central Park. The listeners sat in the middle or circled the edges in bemusement.
Our rehearsals had been held in the beautiful Salon Simón Bolivar, and I returned last Monday night for a piano recital by Ana Cervantes. Before heading upstairs, though, I dropped in on the first floor gallery, which currently houses an exhibition of spatial art by Latin American artists. My favorites were the pieces by Esvin Alarcón Lam: geometric shards of abandoned school buses, multi-colored representations of urban decay.
The concert itself was one of the most inspiring events I’ve witnessed in recent memory. Ana Cervantes had commissioned 16 composers from the US, UK, Colombia, Brazil, & Mexico to write works for her, which were meant to channel a Mexican muse. Having just read a delightful book by Francine Prose about musedom, I was eager hear these works. The composers must have had at least two women on their minds while writing them: their chosen muse and, of course, Ana Cervantes herself.
Ana Cervantes is a thoughtful and intelligent artist, obviously deeply familiar not just with the sounds of her instrument but with the ideas and sentiments behind the notes she was playing. I was only able to stay for the first half of the concert but even that hour or so of music and talk was invigorating and enriching. Silvia Berg’s El sueño…el vuelo of 2010 incorporated Frida Kahlo as well as the miraculous travels of the monarch butterfly into its 4 sections of 24 measures, “in constant metamorphosis”, and then a fifth 24-measure section signifying “the unplanned voyage that we all must make”. The swirling patterns quickly drew me into their playful beauty. The next score, the 2011 Lágrimas y Locuras, Mapping the Mind of a Madwoman by Joelle Wallach, was held up by Ms. Cervantes before she continued playing, enacting a Mexican tradition to acknowledge a living composer when they can’t be present for the performance. “How nice to be reminded that we have living composers,” she said, “and that some of them are women!”
Ms. Wallach’s piece was more roaming, more like a ballade, than the light and airy piece by Silvia Berg. She writes in the program notes that “rather than recount the story of La llorona, this work evokes her tempestuous emotions as she haunts the banks of innumerable Mexican waterways seeking her lost children.” So, the descending full hand chords were “overflowing” with emotion and orchestration, which, as Ms. Cervantes pointed out, contrasted with the next work, Desde el Aire: Seis Instantes by Alba Potes (2010)–a work created with “an economy of means.” The monarch reappears here as a muse alongside Charlotte of Habsburg, Empress Carlota of Mexico; both are delicate symbols, victims of violence. The six pieces were astonishingly brief: the last was a single line. The muffled tone clusters of the beginning, so carefully rendered by Ms. Cervantes, seemed to represent the muted desperation of our planet, increasingly less habitable for the butterflies.
Mario Lavista’s expansive 2013 piece Mujer pintando en cuarto azul was an homage to English-Mexican artist Joy Laville, and the last piece before intermission was probably the most interesting texturally speaking: Charles B. Griffin’s …like water dashed from flowers… of 2010. During the piece, Ms. Cervantes rattled a sleigh bell type object, sang, shouted, and stamped her feet. I have a feeling this one might have included the monarch on its list of muses, too, because I definitely heard the words “la mariposa”, along with a few others, though my Spanish skills are admittedly nonexistent. The music dribbled out and formed beautiful puddles of sound, struck occasionally by a vocal exclamation. Once her fingers were occupied with the keyboard, Ms. Cervantes used her feet to rattle the bells, shouting a vehement exhortation before a final dissolution of sound.
With visual art, public events, and such intimate, eye-opening concerts, the Americas Society will join my list, right next to the Morgan Library, of fascinating institutions tucked away on the east side of NYC.