Puerto Rican conference takes note of music tradition

For 20 years, the University at Albany has had an annual four-day conference that focuses on Puerto
Mezzo-soprano Patricia Cay will sing art songs by Puerto Rican composers Friday as part of the Boricua Rhythms Conference at the University at Albany.
Mezzo-soprano Patricia Cay will sing art songs by Puerto Rican composers Friday as part of the Boricua Rhythms Conference at the University at Albany.

For 20 years, the University at Albany has had an annual four-day conference that focuses on Puerto Ricans, both at home and abroad, and discusses ways to strengthen the college’s own Puerto Rican Studies Association. When pianist Max Lifchitz realized that conference would be held Oct. 24-27, he knew he had to do something.

“I knew there would be a lot of Puerto Rican intellectuals on campus, so I went to the director to see if there could be some time devoted to the music of Puerto Rico. There are many interesting artistic personalities that should be known better,” he said.

The result is the conference will now also host a two-day symposium called “Boricua Rhythms,” which will feature several panel discussions and presentations on issues related to Puerto Rican music and two concerts: On Friday mezzo-soprano Patricia Cay will sing art songs by Puerto Rican composers and on Saturday violinist Narciso Figueroa will play several instrumental works by Puerto Rican composers. Lifchitz, who has been a professor at the university since 1986, will accompany both.

The composers are Héctor Campos-Parsi (1925-1998); Ernesto Cordero (born 1946); Jack Délano (1906-1997); Jesús Figueroa (1878-1971); Narciso Figueroa (1906-2004); Rafael Hernández (1892-1965); William Ortiz (born 1947); Luis Ramirez (1923-1995) and Roberto Sierra (born 1953).

Boricua Rhythms Conference Concerts

WHERE: Performing Arts Center, University at Albany

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Patricia Cay; 3 p.m. Saturday, Narciso Figueroa

HOW MUCH: $25 for conference; $10, $3 for concerts

MORE INFO: 442-4187, 442-3997, www.albany.edu/pac

The Saturday recital will be preceded at 2:30 p.m. with a panel discussion on the future of Puerto Rico’s music with Sierra, Ortiz and Hernández participating.

“Most were conservatory- trained, but their music is hardly ever played, except for Sierra. He’s had commissions from the Philadelphia Orchestra. Otherwise, it’s never on the radar screen,” Lifchitz said. “It’s always underrepresented on programs.”

When most people think of Puerto Rican music, they usually think salsa.

“This is not salsa. That was a style that was concocted by Fania Records about a style that was popular in New York City with conga drums. It is a stereotype,” he said.

The music that will be performed this weekend is classical in form but with elements inspired from the island’s heritage, which blend the rhythms, folk music and cultures of the Spanish, the slaves of Africa, the Amerindians and the Taino peoples.

“It’s a hybrid,” Lifchitz said.

Fourth generation

It was cellist Pablo Casals who really got the ball rolling for classical music in Puerto Rico when he founded the Casals Festival in 1950, said Figueroa, who is the grandson and nephew of the Figueroas whose work is being presented. Until then, musicians who wanted to study and play classical music — like his uncle, Narciso and his four brothers and three sisters — had to go to Europe. Figueroa is the fourth generation in a family of musicians that have had several decades of international success.

Figueroa himself plays with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, his brother Rafael is the orchestra’s principal cellist, his sister Ivonne is a piano professor at the conservatory in Puerto Rico and is also making a presentation at the conference, and his cousin, Guillermo, used to be the music director of the Puerto Rican Symphony. But it all started with his grandfather and his eight children, he said.

“The brothers were unique,” Figueroa said. “They formed a piano quintet and performed internationally until World War II began. They then returned to Puerto Rico and in 1956 Narciso formed the island’s first orchestra.”

Two years later, the government decided to fund the orchestra and established a conservatory. One of the tunes Figueroa will play on the concert was written by his grandfather and dedicated to Figueroa’s father, Kachira, a violinist. It is a theme and variations based on Puerto Rico’s national anthem called “La Borinqueña.” Puerto Rico was originally called Borinquén, an aboriginal Taino name. It officially became the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1952.

“I’m doing my Dad’s cadenza in a grand manner,” Figueroa said. “It’s a very effective piece and probably never been played in New York before.”

Summery melodies

Although he said he’s familiar with the names of the composers, he’s not played the other pieces on the program before. Ortiz’s “Tropical Love Song” is in the style of a bolero; Cordero’s “Insula” depicts many of the landscapes of the island; and Sierra’s Violin Sonata is a very serious “meat and potatoes” kind of piece. Lifchitz will play Campos-Parsi’s piano solo “Tres Fantasias.”

“It’s a very attractive program to listen to,” Figueroa said. “These are beautiful pieces written well for the violin. There is nothing nasty. The rhythms and harmonies will be distinctively Latin with summery melodies.”

Beyond playing some of the works again on one of the many recitals he does, what makes this concert special for him is that he didn’t even know these composers had written something for violin.

“Most of what they write is for voice or guitar. Few pieces are written for violin and piano,” he said. “I would have liked to have presented more but these pieces were hard to find.”

Impressed with lyrics

Patricia Cay has had a similar experience with her material despite having been born and gone to high school in Puerto Rico. Later, she attended the Juilliard School and since has appeared as a soloist with numerous orchestras and opera companies including Opera de Puerto Rico, and won the Metropolitan Opera regional competition in Puerto Rico.

“I was surprised how beautiful the songs were,” she said. “I knew of Campos-Parsi and Hernández, but not the others. “

What equally impressed her was how lovely the lyrics were. Except for Campos-Parsi, who wrote the lyrics for “Canciones de cielo y agua” (“Songs of Heaven and Water”) and Hernández, who wrote those for Tres Canciones (Three Songs), all the other composers used lyrics by various poets. The songs include Cordero’s “Cinco canciones antillanas” (“Five Songs from the Antilles”), which is very melodic and about nature; Ramirez’s “Seis Cantos Antillanos” (“Six Chants from the Antilles”), which are very folk-inspired with a rhythmic piano accompaniment; and Délano’s “Cuatro Sones de la Tierra” (“Four Songs From the Earth”) is very difficult with atonal lines that move a lot with many accidentals.

“You need to know the notes,” Cay said. “You must have the rhythm in your body and head. The lyrics are also interesting about the sea, the island and about love.”

Ortiz’s Dos Canciones (Two Songs) is very controversial and is partly in Spanish and partly in English and has a popular feel. Narciso Figueroa’s “Canciones Infantiles” (“Children’s Songs”) are arrangements he made on the songs she remembers singing in elementary school.

“It’s a very hard piano part that is not Latin but classical. It mixes Brahms and de Falla,” Cay said.

Hernández’s Three Songs are a strong contrast to everything else.

“These are more popular songs. Even Placido Domingo sings them,” she said with a laugh.

Since Cay returns annually to Puerto Rico to perform, she said she’ll now have more material to present to her local audiences.

“I’d done all-Spanish composer concerts before, but an all-Puerto Rican concert is very special,” she said. “I identify with them. And maybe, if they’re sung in Puerto Rico more, more singers will sing them.”

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