Concert Premieres at Havana’s Contemporary Music Festival

By Yusimí Rodríguez (Fotos: Elio Delgado Valdes)

HAVANA TIMES — For the longest time, “contemporary music” was for me synonymous with unbearable music, or, at least, a kind of music that wasn’t meant for the ears of someone like me, who is not an expert and doesn’t have any in-depth knowledge about music.

Because of this, I hadn’t attended the Havana Contemporary Music Festival again since 2001.

On Sunday, November 24, the second day of the 26th Festival, I had the opportunity to rediscover this gathering and come to the realization that, for years, I have missed one of most interesting of music events in the country.

I confess that my main motivation for attended a morning concert at the Covarrubias Hall in Cuba’s National Theater was the opportunity to hear a cello and enjoy the violoncello and string orchestra concert conducted by Israeli composer Nimrod Borenstein.

Up until a few days ago, this name said nothing to me. The conductor’s growing renown around the world, however, had piqued my curiosity. When I read the program, I saw that I would have to sit through four pieces before getting a chance to hear Borenstein’s. In the end, however, the entire experience was marvelous.

The first part was aimed at children (ironically and sadly, there was only one little girl in the entire concert hall). Had there been more children there, they would have been treated to two world premieres: that of Cuba’s Suite for Children, conducted by maestro Harold Gramatges, and of the Travesias de Estela Suite.

During the latter, conducted by Jose A. Miranda, children would have recognized numbers by the late poet and children’s literature writer Ada Elba Perez, such as Estela, granito de canala (“Estela: The Grain of Cinnamon”) and other pieces that have become very popular, and not only among children. The two performances were staged by the Ensemble Alternativo, directed by Greta Rodriguez.

In the second part of concert, we were delighted by the virtuosity of Swiss flutist Antipe da Stella, who performed a concert for flute and orchestra, composed by her compatriot Martin Wettstein, alongside the Matanzas Symphonic Orchestra conducted by Ester Gonzalez Trista (a premiere for Cuba).

This same orchestra accompanied violoncellist Makcim Fernandez Samodaiev for the piece I had anxiously awaited that morning: Nimrod Borenstein’s concert for violoncello and orchestra.

I had feared the piece would be experimental (something that would not have proved enjoyable for me). But Borenstein’s composition proved eminently melodic, something I would have described as simple were it not for the unexpected melancholy that grabs hold of the soul as the piece progresses.

Borenstein’s concert revealed itself to me as a highly dramatic and tense composition. The allegro, the third of the three movements that make up the piece, is particularly intense, like an explosion of all emotions pent-up in the moderato and adagio.

Minutes later, I was able to talk with the performer, Saodaiev, born in 1977 to a Cuban father and Russian mother. He completed the first and second year at Cuba’s National School for the Arts (ENA). His family left the country when he was sixteen.

Last year, he participated in the Contemporary Music Festival for the first time, sixteen years after last visiting the island. This year, he returned with Nimrod Borenstein’s concert, a piece he came upon by chance, he says.

He had heard it by accident while visiting the composer’s webpage and thought it interesting. “It looks simple, but, little by little, you begin to see it has traps, complex areas. That reveals much elegance in terms of composition.”

Makcim also told me the concert was prepared in only four days of rehearsals with the orchestra and that he feels very satisfied with this. The performance was not only a premiere for Cuba but also for the whole of Latin America, where the composer isn’t that well known. The piece has been performed only once before, in Serbia.

My conversation with Makcim was interrupted several times by people asking when he would return and others interested in hearing Borenstein’s piece again (until that morning’s performance, he was unknown by most Cubans).

The last piece performed was Bartoqueada by Jorge Lopez Marin, who, during the applause, surprised the public and musicians by going on stage and expressing his gratitude for the excellent execution of his work.

Havana’s 16th Contemporary Music Festival will hold performances by Cuban and foreign musicians at the National School of Music, the Villena Hall of the Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC), the San Francisco de Asis Convent and other venues through November 30.

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