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.
We 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