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Paquito Brings Havana to Bethesda

Like many orchestras, the Baltimore Symphony has learned that interesting programming is one of the keys to survival. To build a successful season the orchestra seeks to intersperse the staple repertoire of Handel, Beethoven and Mendelssohn with more exotic offerings, this year including works by Chinese composer Tan Dun, a Halloween tribute to Frankenstein by HK Gruber, a concert by Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, selections from Star Trek (narrated by Mr. Sulu!), Charlie Chaplin's score to City Lights, music of the Incas . . . and, here and there, a touch of jazz. As part of their offshoot program at their beautiful home from home at the Strathmore Center for the Performing Arts in Bethesda, MD., they presented NEA Jazz Master and eight time Grammy-winner Paquito D'Rivera and his quartet, along with the orchestra under conductor Andrew Constantine, in a program entitled A Night in Havana.

Late July in Washington is not a bad environment to invoke soft, steamy Cuban nights, and who better than Cuba's favorite son--at least on this side of the water--to invoke it? Paquito is a wonderfully gifted musician with an irrepressible sense of humor--no wonder he got on with Dizzy--and a rich knowledge of all aspects of South American musical forms. There is no one better to convey the spirit of Latin music.

Before his appearance, however, the orchestra took its turn, presenting three shortish works associated with Latin America. Two were by Mexican composers, Huapango by José Pablo Moncayo and Arturo Marquez' Danzon No. 2. Both were full of color and movement, instantly evocative of Latin, specifically Mexican, sensibilities. These are, of course, considered to be slight works, interesting side dishes to the main courses of European Art Music. The latter are not always totally digestible, however. When Claude Debussy called for music with less sauerkraut in it, he could as easily be calling for some tamales and fajitas as for a French cuisine. Which brings me to the third orchestral piece. Perhaps Darius Milhaud was included because of his oft-cited jazz connection--he was Dave Brubeck's composition instructor at Mills College in Oakland, CA., and Le boeuf sur le toit, the piece presented by the BSO on this evening, is often listed as one of the early 20th century's most jazz-influenced compositions. Milhaud's only connection with Latin music, however, is that he sat out World War I in Rio de Janeiro, where he was inspired to write this piece. To be honest, I have to confess that I would have preferred to hear more of the real thing; there is plenty more fine material by South American composers. While I have enjoyed Le boeuf in the past, on this night, rather than a serious piece placed alongside slighter material, it came across as something rather artificial and self-indulgent alongside material that was refreshing in its brightness and innocence. After reaching a point I thought made a fine conclusion the piece went on for another five or six minutes. By intermission I was certainly ready for Paquito!

And he was ready to go as soon as he came on stage, joking and clowning from the outset. When the music begins he is all business, however, although I have to think there is a connection between Paquito's brilliant, seemingly effortless virtuosity and his ebullient personality. Here, with just the right amount of support from the orchestra, he and his rhythm section: Alon Yavnai, piano, Oscar Stagnaro, bass, and Mark Walker, drums, presented two pieces by Astor Piazzolla, Revirado and Oblivion, Andalucia by Ernesto Lecuona--frequently described as Cuba's greatest composer--, D'Rivera's own Memories, and a piece entitled Ellingtoniana by the Argentine composer Jorge Calandrelli, best known to jazz listeners for his Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra from Eddie Daniels' Breakthrough album.

The repertoire was well chosen; it suited Paquito perfectly. I was immediately reminded of a wonderful concert he gave to open last year's DC Jazz Festival, where he blended jazz players with others from Brazil, Mexico, Peru and other parts of South America. Later he told me that the glue that held it all together was the "language of bebop." It was a great insight and it applied equally well to this Night In Havana, with its detours to Buenos Aires. The life and freshness experienced in the Moncayo and Marquez pieces was back, tinged with melancholy via Piazzolla, but blending perfectly with the group's jazz overtones. Paquito gave his compadres plenty of room to shine, and the orchestra added some nice touches, but it was Paquito's clarinet and saxophone that took center stage. Curiously, the latter sounded just a tiny bit out of place in this setting--like a teen at a seniors meeting--but in spite of that both were fleet, lively, and highly expressive. The audience responded with great enthusiasm as this Night In Havana confirmed that jazz and Latin music have a great future together. Bravo Paquito!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Paquito D'Rivera with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
  • Concert Date: 7/20/2007
  • Subtitle: Symphony Orchestra in Flirtation with Latin Jazz
  • Venue: Strathmore Center For The Arts
  • City State Country: Bethesda, Maryland
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