We didn’t have to travel as far as Caracas last night to experience the distinctive, atmospheric sounds, rhythms and textures of Latin American music. Bolivar Hall is attached to Venezuelan Embassy’s cultural complex in London’s Fitzrovia, a short walk from Goodge Street or Warren Street Tube stations.
London-based Venezuelan-born pianist Clara Rodriguez has curated a short series of concerts at Bolivar Hall over the course of the last month, showcasing the talents of established artists as well as up-and-coming young musicians in concerts featuring the best of South American classical music and jazz. In the final concert of the series, she was joined by Efrain Oscher (flute), Cristóbal Soto (mandolin, cuatro, guitar), Gabriel León (double bass) and Wilmerr Sifontes (percussion) to present a musical journey from Argentina to Puerto Rico with a selection of Tangos, Joropos, Merengues, Waltzes, Salsas and Sambas. From the foot-tapping sambas and merengues of Brazil and Venezuela to the passion and pathos of the tango (most notably in Astor Piazzolla’s heartfelt ‘Adios Nonino’, a hommage to his grandfather), the musicians played with commitment and conviction, and a very palpable and infectious sense of pleasure and musical friendship.
As a classically-trained pianist (she was a pupil of the late Phyllis Sellick at the Royal College of Music), Clara brings a deep understanding of musical shape and expression, phrasing, dynamic shading, texture and beauty of sound to her playing, even in the more raucous and rousing pieces. But her Venezuelan heritage shines through in her ability to handle with apparent ease the differing and complex rhythms of the music (although as she admitted at one point during the performance, it isn’t easy music to play, with the emphasis “off the main beat”, and on syncopation and cross-rhythms.
The other musicians were equally skilled: I was particularly struck by flautist Efrain Oscher’s performance. Haunting melodies, sometimes almost whispered, contrasted with bright motifs and some impressive technical/textural effects (triple tonguing). Meanwhile, double bass player Gabriel León showed the richness of the instrument’s voice in some soulful accompaniments and solos. My husband was fascinated by the percussionist, and the myriad sounds and patterns he was able to achieve with simple taps of his fingers or hands. The guitarist, Christobal Soto, brought perhaps the most distinctive Latin flavour to the music: flamenco strumming or the shimmering sounds of the mandolin.
Two encores confirmed just how much both musicians and audience were enjoying the concert. And on the homebound train, our feet were still tapping to the irresistible rhythms of the evening’s music.
A keen champion Latin American piano music, Clara Rodriguez has recorded the piano works of Teresa Careno, Moises Moleiro, Ernest Lecuona, and Federico Ruiz (a contemporary Venezuelan composer with whom she has enjoyed a close collaboration), as well as an impeccably presented album of the late piano music of Chopin, including the Piano Sonata No. 3 and the Polonaise-Fantasie Op 61. Clara’s recordings are available digitally on via iTunes and Spotify, and from good CD retailers. Further information here
Clara talks about music from Latin America in this short film, featuring clips from the concert
London-based Venezuelan pianist, and champion of Venezuelan composers for the piano, Clara Rodriguez returns to the Southbank Centre on 10th December for a concert of music by South-American composers, including Villas-Lobos, Piazzolla and Ruiz, and Debussy. This promises to be a really wonderful evening of music, not just for piano, but for ensemble too, as Clara will be joined by Wilmer Sifontes on percussion, cellist Jordan Gregoris and violinist Ilya Movchan. The concert also features two London premieres of works by Colombian composer Germán Darío Pérez.
I reviewed Clara Rodriguez and friends at Purcell Room last autumn, and Clara also features in my Meet the Artist interview series. Read her interview with me here. And here is Clara in her own words about her forthcoming concert:
All concerts at the Southbank are special events, the magic of one evening only, the energy, imagination and love that goes into putting the programme together is part of our artistic proposal to the world. My concert on Monday December 10th at the Purcell Room is going to be another exciting yet very different experience to the other nine or ten ones I have played there in the past.
The high inspiration, poetry and skill behind all the pieces I am playing makes my heart jump with emotion. Just reading Verlaine’s Clair de lune poem makes me realize even more deeply about the beauty of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, which I could play for ever!
Votre âme est un paysage choisi Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau, Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau, Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.
Your soul is a chosen landscape
Charmed by masquers and bergamaskers
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fanciful disguises.
Even while singing, in a minor key,
Of victorious love and fortunate living
They do not seem to believe in their happiness,
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
The still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
Which sets the birds in the trees dreaming,
And makes the fountains sob with ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among the marble statues!
I have always been interested by the output of contemporary composers, their loneliness and their bravery in expressing their truths out on paper, apart from appreciating their talent, of course. On this occasion I will première three preludes by the young Venezuelan composer Mirtru Escalona Mijares who lives in Paris and has kindly dedicated the last of the Three Short Preludes to me. It is based on a tanka by the buddhist monk RYOKAN (1758-1831), it is called “…contempler longuement…” in it I have to use special concentration skills to play pianissimo and very slowly as opposed to our usual kind of preoccupation which is to play fast and lots of notes. Mirtru has been working very hard in purifying or cleansing musical phrases and thoughts. It is a challenge! Here is the poem the third Prelude is inspired by:
“Je n’ai rien de spécial à vous offrir juste une fleur de lotus dans un petit vase à contempler longuement “.
I have nothing special to offer to you/Just a lotus flower In a small vase/To be contemplated for a long time
“Hommage à Chopin”, a tour de force written by Villa-Lobos will follow. It is a strange piece, not exactly romantic, I think it has the force of the Amazonian jungle and depicts Chopin’s passionate torments and obsessions. It has a greater number of melodic layers than most piano pieces thus making it quite virtuosic.
It was while studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris that Piazzolla was urged to develop his love for tango thus creating the “new tango” in which he transformed this old Argentinean dance into music capable of a variety of expression, fusing sharply-contrasted moods: his tangos are by turn fiery, melancholic, passionate, tense, violent, lyric and always driven by an endless supply of rhythmic energy. I am thrilled to be able to play Le Grand Tango, one of his most Classical pieces, and then in the same evening The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires with leading young performers from France, Jordan Gregoris on the cello and from Russia, Ksenia Berenzina on the violin. You’ll see what exquisite pair of musicians they are. We are having the fun of our lives playing this music. It is luxury!
Not forgetting my Caribbean roots, I have added three composers from that part of the world, for two reasons, my dear London public expects it and simply because I have so much joy playing them. So, from Cuba a nostalgic Danzón by José María Vitier, who composed the music for the film “Strawberry and Chocolate”, then two London premières will follow by a composer from Bogotá, Colombia, Germán Darío Pérez, in which my friend percussionist Wilmer Sifontes will play the kind of percussion that should accompany a bambuco and then we’ll play together the very lively Zumba que zumba (joropo) written for me by the Venezuelan composer Federico Ruiz, in which Wilmer will play the Venezuelan maracas. I doubt it if this programme could be more exciting or varied!
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I was brought up by a musical mother who studied the piano with Moisés Moleiro, and sang in the choir in the premiere of the ‘Cantata Criolla’ by Antonio Estévez. Unfortunately she fell ill very young and had to abandon music. When I was 7 I was accepted as a student at the Conservatorio Juan José Landaeta in Caracas where I had the most wonderful and generous teachers. My piano teacher was Guiomar Narváez, strict and very artistic, with a great passion for the classical composers and Latin American music. At 16 I won a scholarship to come to the Royal College of Music in London, where I was assigned to Phyllis Sellick as the teacher who would carry on developing what Mrs. Barbara Boissard and Michael Gough Matthews saw in my style of playing when they heard me in the audition in Caracas. For that I am very grateful: Phyllis was an extraordinary human being who taught me the art of piano playing.
Who or what were the greatest influences on your playing?
My main teachers obviously, including Polish pianist Regina Smenzianka and Paul Badura-Skoda, and also the many concerts I went to as a child growing up in Caracas. I remember listening to Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, George Demus, Willhem Kempf, Yoyoma, Alicia De La Rocha, and conductors such as Charles Dutoit, Cuban Nicolás Guillén reciting his poetry, popular singers like Mercedes Sosa, the cinema of Carlos Saura, Stanley Kubrik, Herzog, Chaplin….all these wonderful true artists, giving us the best of their knowledge and gigantic talents, seeing, listening and receiving all the universal and most humane expression and energy.
Then in London I have enjoyed many concerts of classical music and jazz, plus all my friends who also play and are now the great musicians of our time.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career?
Every concert you play, every CD you make is a challenge. To teach very gifted children is also a challenge. I think we face climbing Everest nearly every day! Nothing is easy. To play phrases in the most clear of ways, respecting the intentions of the composer is a challenge. When you decide that you are a pianist you understand that the challenge is what motives you, that’s what takes you out of bed.
A big challenge we face today is that classical music has been marginalised by the media, and by the idea that fashion, cookery and frivolous cinema or football stars are more important than profound thought, creativity and art. We have to keep going, as it is now up to us to make sure that this precious legacy we have acquired through centuries survives. It is a very hard and heavy burden!
Which CD in your discography are you most proud of?
Although I have recorded about 9 hours of music from Venezuela, by Venezuelan composers, I consider them all to be very different from each other. I have also recorded one CD of music by Chopin and another one by Ernesto Lecuona, which will come out in the autumn. I am sensitive to the qualities of the piano, acoustics and sound engineer. I have produced most of my CDs and am in general satisfied with the results; perhaps sometimes I am over critical and cannot bear listening to something that is too slow (I can think of one piece that I let myself be influenced by the engineer and now I do not agree with the tempo…). I think each CD is a world of its own: they are “concepts” and represent moments of our lives.
Critics are not familiar with Venezuelan music and a few years ago those CDs represented a kind of “political statement”. What’s good now is that those critics are more receptive, less “Eurocentric” and are beginning to understand (after 500 years) that Latin America is part of western culture.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
I love the Purcell Room, the Wigmore Hall, St John’s Smith Square, Invalides in Paris, and the Teatro Teresa Carreño and Municipal in Caracas. Any hall with a decent piano and lovely audience will be always great!
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love every piece I play, and with each of them there really is a love affair. From Bach, Scarlatti, Mateo Albéniz, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, to Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin, Scriabin…the list is very long. Equally I have to constantly listen to classical music, salsa and Latin American popular music.
Who are your favourite musicians?
All the musicians that show passion, love, understanding, involvement, imagination… There are millions of fantastic musicians in our planet.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to students/aspiring musicians?
I think I have answered this above, but there is a concept I have discovered recently and it is to do with sharing with the young one’s knowledge, experiences and very importantly giving these young, very talented musicians the opportunities to perform and express their ideas and art. I think experienced, successful musicians should open the path for the young. Not many people in the “business” will do it for them now days.
Perfect happiness can be found anywhere, at any time, the thing is to be aware of this and enjoy it while it lasts.
‘Joropo’ by Moisés Moleiro
Caracas-born pianist, Clara Rodriguez studied with Phyllis Sellick after winning a scholarship from the Venezuelan Arts Council to train in London at the Royal College of Music. There she was the recipient of numerous prizes and performed as a soloist with the RCM orchestras including De Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and the Ravel Concerto in G at St. John’s Smith Square.
In Caracas she made her debut playing Mozart’s last piano concerto with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra under the baton of José Antonio Abreu at the age of sixteen; from then on Clara Rodriguez’s career as a concert pianist has taken her to perform all over the world. Her large and interesting repertoire covers works of the best known Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern composers; she has also intensely promoted the music of the Latin American continent.
Her discography includes CDs of the piano music of the Venezuelan composers Moisés Moleiro, Federico Ruiz and Teresa Carreño; her catalogue also includes Popular Venezuelan Music Vol. 1; El Cuarteto con Clara Rodríguez en vivo as well as the piano works by the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and of Frederic Chopin late works.
Her recordings are regularly played on BBC Radio3, Classic FM, Radio Nacional de Venezuela, Radio France International, and networks from Argentina to the USA, Australia and China.
Clara Rodriguez teaches piano at the Junior Department of The Royal College of Music in London.
Clara’s latest recording, the piano music of Frederico Ruiz is available now on the Nimbus label. More information here
London-based Venezuelan pianist Clara Rodriguez and friends brought the heady and exotic rhythms and sounds of South America to a windy Southbank in a delightfully relaxed concert of chamber music at the Purcell Room. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here
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