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CD Review

Yalil Guerra

Old Havana

Chamber Music, Volume 1
  • Old Havana 1
  • De Congo y Carabalí for Wind Trio 2
  • ¿Donde está mi negro bembón? 3
  • Carnaval for brass quintet 4
  • A la antigua 5
2 Katisse Buckingham, flute
2 John Tegmeyer, clarinet
2 Ben Wendel, bassoon
3 Uncredited Vocal Ensemble/Natacha Prado
4 Michael McGuffey, trumpet, Marissa Benedict, trumpet, Steven Durnin, horn, Brad Close, trombone, Fred Greene, tuba/Francisco Castillo
1,5 Ensamble Solistas de la Habana/Iván Valiente
RYCY 884502532234 43:38
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Cuban Cubist.

Born in 1973 to professional musicians in Cuba, Yalil Guerra first studied guitar in his native country and also made a name for himself in Eastern Europe as a performer. He later studied at the Spanish Royal Conservatory, not only guitar but counterpoint and fugue as well. In the United States, he studied composition with Aurelio de la Vega. He now has a fairly successful U.S. career, often writing for Spanish-language television. In 2010, for this very album, he received a Latin Grammy nomination. He also occasionally performs with his parents, the popular duo Rosell y Cary, and his sister, Yamila.

Like many Latin composers, Guerra works two veins: popular and hard-core classical. As with someone like Piazzolla or even Villa-Lôbos, he can do straight one or the other, or he allows the two to interpenetrate. The music surprised me. I didn't expect it so full of "classical" interest. Some of this stuff challenges both players and listeners quite a bit. I wouldn't call any of it avant-garde, in the sense of somebody like Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt, although in standing outside the aesthetic of the Modernist hard-core, it takes an unusual stand in its own way. Above all, this music comes from an individual point of view. Some of it works for me, and some of it doesn't, although what doesn't may come down to a matter of my expectations rather than Guerra's intentions.

Old Havana for strings begins very much like a chaconne, but it soon becomes clear that it's really a tripartite dance – stately on the outside, a bit quicker in its pizzicato middle. I wanted the chaconne so much, the piece actually disappointed me, despite its moments of beauty. One of the longest works on the album, it sprawls. Nevertheless, it reveals an interesting musical mind, melodically and harmonically. Some of it reminds me of the Spanish La Folia, but few chords sound free of dissonant seconds and tone-clusters. Still, it preserves a populist "feel." A la Antigua, also for strings, resembles something more traditional, an aria with much the same expressiveness as, say, the first movement of the Villa-Lôbos Fifth Bachiana.

The outstanding feature of most Latin music is, of course, cross-rhythms – different rhythms in different voices combining to create a new pulse – percolating away in a rolling stew. Guerra achieves this both in the usual way – through counterpoint – and in an unusual way. Lines in rhythmic lockstep suggest the jostling of different pulses mainly because they syncopate on an unexpected part of the beat. Effectively, three dimensions flatten into two, while retaining their power to suggest volume. I imagine that the performance difficulty of Guerra's music lies here. I once performed a classical piece by a jazz composer, and the notation gave me fits, simply because I wasn't used to seeing the figures. Not even Stravinsky or Ives gave me that much trouble. However, the revelation came when I realized that they were really common jazz rhythms, slightly altered. I suspect Guerra does much the same thing.

De Congo y Carabalí may have something to do with Cuban carnival, especially around Santiago, and the street musicians, or comparsas, who perform then. Afro-Cuban culture looms large in Guerra's music, especially notable in his rhythms. Carabalí derives from the Nigerian slave port of Carabal, and a large number of slaves who sailed from there wound up in Santiago. They are said to have given us the rumba. De Congo – for flute, clarinet, and bassoon – begins with a jazzy swoop downward and launches into a rhythmically complex dance (the trio is one of the more contrapuntally lively items on the program), which leads to a habanera. The fast dancing returns to round off the movement. The second movement starts as a kind of tango, but it moves to a display of contrapuntal fireworks, perhaps a rumba. For a conclusion, the tango returns. The finale, part rumba, part danzón, calls for some discreet avant-garde techniques, but to me, who lived for over a quarter century in New Orleans, it comes off mainly as a group of carnival dancers sashaying down the street.

¿Donde está mi negro bembón? for chorus – the title gave me trouble. I know enough Spanish to get most of it, but my Spanish dictionary couldn't tell me what bembón meant. I came across the word in the writings of the great Cuban poet Nicolas Guillén, and a friend brought to my attention the protest classic by Puerto Rico's Bobby Capó, "El Negro Bembón." The word seems to change meaning from one Latin country to the next. In Cuba, it apparently denotes a Cuban of African descent. The music poses fewer problems. It's rough, blocky, and vigorous, and reminds me a bit of Bartók's take on Hungarian folk music, although I suspect Guerra has written an original tune. The main strain – a see-sawing up and down across a minor third – has the quality of a street chant, but from there, it takes off in more complex directions. The score is less a folk-song arrangement than Modern music upon a folk-like base. It seems a lament. For some reason (the only words I have are the title), I picture a woman wondering where her cheatin' man has gone. Many things about it impress me. The harmonies are both barbed and gorgeous, quite difficult for performers, although not bizarre to the ear. The melodic line takes off in unexpected directions. Guerra packs many different choral textures into a small amount of time – a masterful miniature.

The brass quintet, Carnaval, is not only the most ambitious work on the program, but the most difficult. In fact, in this performance, it's conducted. Guerra pushes the Afro-Cuban elements closer to abstraction. The quintet has three movements. The opening to the first seems more "international" than Cuban. However, a Latin flavor occasionally breaks in, mainly through the rhythmic independence of the parts. Most of it seems reflective, if not downright gloomy, which makes me wonder about the title. The second reminds me of a canción or a mood piece for guitar, something like a Villa-Lôbos prelude. The third finally raises the roof and shakes its hips. Again, Guerra stresses rhythmic independence. I especially like the way he varies the "orchestration" of the parts, so that he keeps you guessing which instrument will enter next.

The performances are good enough. I suspect that, as with most recordings of contemporary music, the rehearsal time was short. For example, there's no real reason why a bunch of professionals couldn't perform Carnaval without a conductor, despite its hair-trigger rhythms, if only they had the time to work things out. Same with the vocal ensemble. Harmonically, Donde está poses intonation problems, which the singers mostly skirt but don't make you forget. The wind trio does best, in my opinion, and the strings certainly aren't challenged by the notes, although they, too, might have benefitted from a longer acquaintance with the score. Nevertheless, the release is good enough to tell you that Yalil Guerra is a composer worth watching.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.