Song of the Day: Aug 31

A final post from our 2015 NYFOS@NorthFork cast, then Song of the Day is on break until Labor Day. Here are some selections from baritone Dimitri Katotakis to enjoy in these last few weeks of summer!

When we were preparing the “Latin Lovers” concert, Steven and I stumbled upon a question that neither of us could answer. It came up in the song, “Abismo de sed” by Carlos Guastavino, set to a poem by Alma García. This is a powerful tune, the outcry of a soul in pain. The only thing that will assuage his torment: wine, and a woman. (Steve had featured the song in his Song-of-the-Day on June 19—right after he cast me in the show.) One possible reading was that this desire was purely epicurean, the selfishness of a sensualist. But we both felt that there was something more to the song, something that we were missing. One line, Steven thought, might hold the key. In the repeated chorus, the singer proclaims that he is from Tucumán, and we thought that this area might have had some sort of historical resonance for Argentineans. Perhaps he was a fugitive from a government purge in that province, and was on the run from the Fascist regime. We were excited to talk to Victor Torres about it—certainly he would know! But when we had the pleasure of Skyping with him in Argentina, he couldn’t explain it either. “Tucumán. Is a province.” “Yes, Victor, we know that…” “Ah…my father came from Tucumán…?” Interesting but not exactly useful.

But after the concert I did some research of my own and found a connection between Tucumán and a very intriguing part of the history of Latin American song: the musical/political movement called “Nueva canción.”

Nueva canción (“new song”) sprang up in the 1950s. It is a style of music that developed and spread across Latin America and the Caribbean combining folk music and other indigenous styles from the barrios. It used traditional instruments and had politicized and passionate lyrics. It was music of the people, spreading a message of justice and solidarity, seeking an end to prejudice, repression, and rampant imperialistic injustice. Nueva canción was popularized by singers like Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodríguez, but I’d like to focus on one in particular, Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009).

Often referred to as ‘La Negra’ for her long, black hair, Sosa was an Argentinean singer who never defined herself as a political activist. But her songs delivered powerful messages of social justice and political struggle in metaphor and in tone. She had a dark, passionate contralto and she could command in her story-telling with a wide palette of colors, from insinuating sweetness to the powerful sobs and howls.

In ‘Canción con todos’ (“Song with everybody”), she sings “toda la sangue puede ser canción en el viento/canto conmigo, canta/ hermano americano,/libera tu esperanza con un grito en la voz…,” which translates to “All blood can be a song in the wind/ Sing with me, sing/ American brother/ Set free your hope with a cry in your voice,” a powerful call for others to join in the revolution.

Sosa became famous throughout Latin America for her rendition of “Gracias a la vida,” a song originally written by Violeta Parra, another pioneer of Nueva canción. It relays a message of a human experience that is universal across divides of class and race, implicitly political.

Though she never called herself an activist, Sosa was arrested and sent into exile in 1979, officially an enemy of the junta of Jorge Videla. This exile caused her great and lasting grief, but after Videla’s regime collapsed in 1982, she returned to give sold-out performances and her music was championed as the music of a new dream for Argentina.

What does this have to do with Tucumán, you might be thinking? Well, this political fighter, a champion to her people, was also from Tucumán, and many of her early albums are filled with songs of grief for her oppressed province and people. Maybe, the protagonist of Guastavino and García’s song experienced the oppression and opted to leave his home in search of a new life, rather than stay and fight.

It seems, at any rate, that Mercedes Sosa had other things to sing about than needing a stiff drink and a companion for the night, and if her music inspired change in the world, then we can all be glad for that too.

Below I’ve included links to some of my favorite Sosa recordings, as well as the songs referred to above.

Canción con todos:

Gracias a la vida (studio):

-with a large, cheering crowd, later in her career:

Balderrama (a personal favorite, translation included in the video):

Ay este azul:

(this whole concert is absolutely worth listening to)

Song of the Day: August 28

Under the wire, here is our Song of the Day for August 28th from NYFOS@North Fork Emerging Artist Amanda Lynn Bottoms:

When Steve asked me to join the Orient Point residency, my familiarity with Cuban, Brazilian, Argentinian and Latin music as a whole was…limited. So I did what any logical millennial would do and headed to Google to discover the Brazilian stars of yesteryear. I was led to a Spotify list spanning from Tim Maia to Elis Regina to Joao Gilberto. Topping the list was “Garota De Ipanema” by Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim. The iconic song, better known to American audiences as “The Girl from Ipanema”, was praised throughout the post as THE definition of Brazil, an international calling card for a style of music that charmed the world — bossa nova. This served as an exciting introduction to what was in store this summer creating nostalgia for a time and place I never knew.

Rumor has it that the two musicians were sitting at a bar near Ipanema Beach in Rio and wrote this song down on a bar napkin when they saw the most beautiful woman walk by. Her name was Heloisa Eneida Menezes Pais Pinto, an eighteen-year-old Carioca—a native of Rio. Tall and tan, with emerald green eyes and long, dark wavy hair. Headed everywhere and nowhere at the same time with a style of strut that de Moraes could only call “sheer poetry.” That ease of life and love carries throughout not only this tune but all of the Brazilian works we presented in LATIN LOVERS – no need to be or do anything more than you are because you are born just right, effortlessly beautiful.

Sadly the rumors of “Ipanema” are not completely true but the spirit is present nonetheless. Jobim and de Moraes were working on a musical comedy called Blimp that involved a martian, Rio and the biggest night of Carnaval – sounds like a hit already. Needless to say they wanted a song to embody the beauty and excitement of our planet – a girl clad in a bikini was the most logical muse of course. Stalled two verses into “Menina que Passa” (“The Girl Who Passes By”) Jobim and de Morase conjured up their own longing for the girl on the shore to create the hit we all know and love.

While listening to the track in its native Portuguese, though I had no clue what they were saying without the translation, I could feel their playful appetite more than ever before. I was instantly pushed back to a moment in the car when I was eight-years and riding in the back seat through what seemed like endless miles of highway on the way to rural Virginia from Buffalo, NY. This song came on the radio, the iconic Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz rendition, and I did a bit of a hula dance mixed with a cross body disco point and the classic v-past the eyes motion. My dad was quick to notice my actions in the rear-view mirror and corrected my choreography with “What was that?! Ipanema would never do that! She’s the most beautiful girl in the world (besides your mother) and she doesn’t have to try to show it. Ease up kid.” My dad, the all knowing, glittering in gold jewelry, Greek-New Yorker was right and it would only take 15 years for me to realize it.

That au naturel wind in the hair, “born in a bikini” (as Steve would say) persona was a constant joy and struggle to find throughout rehearsals. We live in a world bombarded with the idea that bigger is better, louder is better, sexier is better – check out any female starring Superbowl ad from the past five years and you’ll get a highly commercialized but scarily close idea of what the American sense of “beautiful and sexy” is. Brazil is not that. Brazil is marveling at your gorgeous body and letting it all hang out if that feels good to you. Brazil is not needing everyone to validate your presence or being showy about your looks; you walk into a room and everyone gravitates to you because you’re the most genuine thing on two legs there. Throw in some whispered conversation over the shoulder and maybe you’ll be the next “Garota De Ipanema.” I still have a long way to go until I can confidently strut around in the famously cheeky bathing suits that Brazilian women are known to rock but for now I can tackle their music with simplicity, elegance and a portamento or two so Steve doesn’t internally combust.

And anytime I feel the foolish temptation to put in a ritzy, Wagnerian level display of just how Brazilian I can be I’ll take a breath, slip on my turquoise colored sarong and whisper to myself “ease up kid.”

Enjoy these colorful recordings!
Astrud Gilberto With Stan Getz – Girl From Ipanema (1964)

Joao Gilberto – Garota de Ipanema (junto a Tom Jobim)

Song of the Day: August 27

Alex McKissick with the Song of the Day for August 27th:

As the Orient residency tenor soloist, I feel it is my duty to introduce, or for the more well-informed out there, to further explore the life of a fabulous Spanish tenor, Miguel Fleta.

Mr. Fleta was an operatic superstar back in the early 20th century. Singing in almost every major opera house of the day, Mr. Fleta consistently impressed audiences with his vocal faculties. The power of his high notes combined with an inhuman capacity for diminuendos to pianissimo even (or especially) in the heights of his range drew large raucous crowds to his performances. These talents earned him almost as much criticism as praise however. Critics frequently accused Fleta of over employing his diminuendos and of drawing too much attention to his high notes at the expense of the rest of the vocal line. To many, criticism of this kind seems moronic, though, certain recordings do exist where Mr. Fleta does, perhaps, push the boundaries of taste. 

The modern audience owes much to Fleta. He created the role of Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot. He was a huge proponent of Zarzuela and Spanish song, recording a large catalogue that kept many works alive to be discovered again today. He almost literally gave his soul for the enjoyment of the crowd. After performances, it was not rare for Mr. Fleta to come out onto the stage of the opera house with his guitar to sing Spanish song and Jota until the crew made him and the audience leave. Then, they would simply walk to the nearest bar, and his performance would continue into the early hours of the morning. Perhaps, it was because of this and early complications from the kidney disease that would take his life, that Mr. Fleta’s voice began to deteriorate by 1930. Miguel Fleta took a teaching position at the Madrid Conservatory in 1936, which he held until his death in 1938.

Here is the song “¡Ay, ay, ay!” by Chilean composer Osman Perez Freire. In this you can hear all of Fleta’s strengths, and maybe even feel that overwhelming passion that he poured into everything he sang.

Con besos y amor,
Alex McKissick

Song of the Day: August 26

August 26th’s Song of the Day, coming from NYFOS@NorthFork soprano Anna Dugan. Thanks, Anna!

‘Dugan’ doesn’t exactly scream Spanish, so people rarely guess that I hail from Spain (half of me, at least). Performing on the “Latin Lovers” concert was a special gift for me, as it is rare that I get to sing music so intrinsic to who I am (Thanks Steve!). I grew up on a steady diet of Spanish popular songs and zarzuela, and while Latin music is definitely different, there are some strong similarities.

During our residency in Orient, I was hit by the pervasiveness of ‘duende’ (a term often considered untranslatable) in Spanish music. The haunting, consuming fire was found in almost every piece, infusing itself in some more than others. I shared a speech García Lorca gave on the subject, where he tries to describe the indescribable. The gut-wrenching passion, the intensity of the Spanish and Latino spirit appears time and time again in the music of its people.

“Cantares” is a song from Joaquín Turina’s “Poema en Forma de Canciones.” The piece is quintessentially Spanish, with the flamenco-style cries and the ornamental turns in the vocalization. Much of Turina’s music bears the influence of traditional Andalusian music. I happen to be partial to Victoria de los Angeles’ interpretations; I was raised on her recordings, especially those with Alicia de Larrocha, who was a close friend of my grandmother. As Lorca said in his speech, the duende is found in the color of her voice; it is incredibly haunting and impresses her pain upon the listener. The beauty of her voice is obscured by the emotion wrought by her singing.

Song of the Day: August 25

This week’s Songs-of-the-Day are being written by the cast of our NYFOS@North Fork project. Today’s entry is from our ace percussionist Josh Vonderheide. He describes how he got ready for the concert:

To get prepared for the “Latin Lovers” concerts that NYFOS presented last weekend in Long Island, I had to immerse myself in the music of Latin America. Steve had given me free rein to be creative. But with so many percussion instruments to choose from–bongos, congas, shakers, timbales, claves–sometimes the most challenging element of a performance can be pinning down the exact combination of timbres and tones to fit a tune. And rhythmically speaking, Afro-Cuban music is some of the most complex and elusive music for an “outsider” to absorb and control. So what does a percussionist in his twenties do when he lacks a natural instinct for what instruments to choose–and what rhythms to play on said instruments…? YouTube, of course! And what a resource! I was amazed to find authentic recordings of nearly every country and style that “Latin Lovers” would visit. I was particularly fascinated by the very famous Cuban song “El Manisero” by Moisés Simons. It’s always a good idea to start with the classics because there are so many wonderful interpretations by great drummers who add their own flair and character to the music, while retaining the authenticity and traditional elements of their culture. 

“El Manisero” translates to “The Peanut Vendor,” and the song describes a long-standing tradition in Cuba; street vendors calling out to passers-by in an attempt to sell them food or goods. As the Don Azpiazu’s shaker and claves accompany Antonio Machin’s alluring voice, one can picture him/herself walking the streets of Havana, getting swept up in the rhythm of the city, the music, and of course, the peanuts.

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@NorthFork / The Performances!

There were a lot of blessings this weekend. In spite of some nasty-looking icons on my iPhone weather app earlier in the week, the weather held up Saturday and Sunday. The Orient concert was sold out. And the Latin/Caribbean music worked its wiles on both audiences in a powerful way. The Saturday show in Bellport, courtesy of South Country Concert (run by the divine Deb Birnbaum, and another very cool woman named Laurinel Owens), is a true gift: a great, low-pressure place to work out the kinks and sing for one of those smart, grateful audiences we all pray for. It’s the kind of place where the eight-year old girl in Row B turns out to be studying cello, and paying avid attention–the type of kid who will actually listen to Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras #5 the next day. (She joked with me that she would play all 8 cello parts when she performed the piece, miming how she’d accomplish this feat.) I’d been praying for good weather because Deb and her husband John Kocay serve an outdoor supper after the concert at their place, and that is a meal you do not want to have canceled on account of rain. John is a superb cook, and that farm-to-table meal had as much music in it as anything we’d offered in the concert hall.

The Bellport performance went well. We’d not been able to get through the show without stopping at our dress rehearsal, but there were no serious glitches on Saturday. I sometimes forget how much vitality this repertoire has, but I could feel its power that afternoon. People were electrified. The day had started with one of those incidents that will soon turn into urban legend: after driving out in a BMW that had some transmission problems (it had a tendency to stall in a busy intersection), Dimitri discovered that he had left his pants home. (Of course, they’d fallen off the hanger. Problems of straight men….) Because I had my back to him, I missed his wild-eyed entrance into the hall clad in a purple shirt and a pair of boxers. “I HAVE TO GO TO TARGET AND BUY SOME PANTS.” He headed back into the BMW, almost got hit by a truck in an intersection when the BMW took a brief snooze, drove to Target where (as I understood it) he was waited on first by a deaf person, and then by a person who could not speak. If I have the story right, am thrilled that Target has a policy of hiring handicapped workers, but there are times when it would be quicker to find someone with all their faculties. However they, at least, had pants, something Dimitri did not.

He came back about 10 minutes before curtain with two pair of pants. Target cuts their trousers in that modern style, tight in the leg and high in the crotch. I was told by a fashion person that this trend was started because it saves money for the manufacturers–less material per garment. Even the bigger pair of pants was still rather, um, form-fitting. Well, I mused, perfect for Latin Lovers. It gave a whole new lift to the songs where Dimitri had to dance.

On Sunday everyone had all their clothing, and Dimitri was back in his normal, comparatively baggy suit-pants. The little moments of tentativeness, most of the little language errors, the occasional vocal frailties had disappeared, washed away by the out-of-town tryout. The hall in Orient was packed and the audience got a very, very hot show. I think that NYFOS@North Fork is starting to have legs. I feel that my fellow Orienters are seeing the value of this residency, which is still small (one week, five artists) but could one day grow into a real institute as the support for it grows. The town is busy upgrading the hall, and the buzz around this annual event is good. At this point people out here still think of it as a gift they passively receive–look, Santa just arrived with a great show for us!–but in a few years they will feel the ownership I want them to have. They already exhibit so much generosity to us, and so much enthusiasm for the music.
–Steven Blier, August 24, 2015

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@NorthFork / Day 5

Thursday’s big event was the arrival of Josh Vonderheide, our percussionist (pictured below). Clearly he doesn’t look Latin, but he’s one of those guys who can play anything from Brahms, Stravinsky, and Varèse to Cuban dance tunes. He is a calm, organized presence who makes music with the kind of command that would be staggering in a player of any age–but is especially impressive in a 23-year old. He knew the material cold–and hot. There is something about the sound of bongos and congas and claves and especially the shaker that defuses tension and gives music wings. For me, it was like arriving at an oasis. The dry spell was over.

IMG_3669We have a little bit of dancing in the show–no big choreography, just what we call “‘ography,” fairly informal partner-dancing for a couple of numbers. I knew Alex could move and I assume all women can dance (is that sexist?), but I only recently found out that Dimitri, who is an imposing 6’2″, has had some dance training as well. There is something breathtaking about big guys who are graceful, and our Dimitri is very light on his feet, a samba and merengue ace. He seems to turn into somebody else when he dances, a benign Lothario-bear. I could have rehearsed the instrumental break in “Frenesí” all afternoon. The hall was filled with life and light and swaying couples. It was interesting to see the boys vie for primacy as dance captain. I’d put Alex in charge, but Dimitri stepped up to the plate in a way we couldn’t ignore. The girls let themselves be led except for one spot where Anna gently contradicted Alex. Seeing a little squabble brewing, I stepped in. I know very little about dance but I could see Anna’s way was more graceful. “But…in Spanish dance, the man always takes the leading step!” protested Alex. “Sorry babe, it just looks a little awkward…”

It was gratifying to see everyone make big strides on their solos and duets. Alex sailed through his three numbers with a surprising Latinate vocal sheen–where does that Caribbean-Iberian sound come from in his Scottish-Russian-mongrel mix background? Wherever he finds the timbre, it’s just right for this repertoire. Anna’s opulent sound gets more flexible and personal every time she rehearses–that woman never stops working on her music. I could see that she’d picked up something intangible but palpable from our Skype talk with Victor Torres the day before, and her Argentinean songs were getting some sweet, south-of-the-border fragrance. Amanda has a way of stepping into her songs and inhabiting them in a way that seems effortless, a gift I am not sure she’s aware of. She has a natural sense of rhythm and a capacity for big, bold delivery that I am trying to encourage. When she’s on, she is a force to be reckoned with (I keep thinking of Shirley Verrett). And Dimitri had a late-rehearsal breakthrough that suddenly cracked his songs open. Because he’s tall and seems confident, I sometimes speak to him more forcefully than I do with the others. It seems he can take the push, and after I explode “NO NO NO NO NO NO!” I can then explain where his process goes off the tracks, and how to fix it. He’s a bright man, smart enough to have almost too many thoughts circulating in his brain while he’s singing. I tried to simplify it yesterday, get it down to one task: just SAY what you’re SAYING, and the phrase will follow. And it did–along with the color, the tempo, and the inner spirit of the song.

Over dinner Josh shared some of the more colorful details of his life. He’s got a refreshingly open spirit and reached out to us in the most disarming way. They say “Never judge a book by its cover.” In Josh’s case, the appealing book cover isn’t a bit misleading–but there are still plenty of surprises in the book