Contralto Helen Tintes-Schuermann and Pianist Julio Alexis Muñoz
Present Twentieth Century Spanish Art Songs

Tidewater's art song season was off to a great start with a recital of "Spanish Poetry in 20th Century Song" at Chandler Hall presented by Old Dominion University's music department on September 4, 2007. Dr. Helen Tintes-Schuermann, an experienced recitalist, specializes in German and Spanish/Latin-American songs, grew up in North Dakota and now teaches at the University of South Carolina. Of special interest for this program were her years of study in Spain. This is music she is passionate about but the depth of interpretation surely comes from her years of study at Escuela de Canto, Madrid. The pianist Julio Alexis Muñoz is outstanding, part of the new generation of Spanish chamber musicians. He has performed throughout Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Japan as a soloist and in a trio. He understands well how to put across an art song.

The recital was a phenomenally deep exploration of Spanish art song by exceptionally accomplished performers. A reader who is familiar with Spanish art songs by soprano voice only can get an idea of the experience of a lovely contralto voice by contrasting the sound of a flute with that of a cello with all its rich, deep overtones.

The songs of Fernando Obradors (1897-1945), Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999), Federico Mompou (1893-1987) and Manuel De Falla (1876-1946) sung before the intermission are familiar to this listener but not a single one of her selections had I heard before. It was a bouquet of picaresque songs presented in a direct and dramatic way, and with richness of tone. Rodrigo, a prolific composer, was represented by his cycle Four Sephardic Songs based on folk-like melodies. Victoria Kamhi, his wife and assistant was of Turkish Sephardic origin, and discovered these anonymous texts: Respóndemos (God of Abraham, Answer Us), Nani, Nani (Cradle Song), "Morena" me Llaman ("Dark-skinned girl" they call me). He also set St. John of the Cross' mystic poem from the 16th century Canto de la Esposa (The Wife's Canticle). Her performance was visceral to match the quality of the music.

Mompou, born in Catalonia in eastern Spain, composed music described as child-like and impressionistic in its transparency. Cantar del Alma is set to a most impressive text by St. John of the Cross. Complex a capella verses between piano interludes call on the beauty of the voice to give an experience of the divine qualities of the soul flowing from the night of our incomprehension. The other Mompou songs are settings of 20th century Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jiminez. Pastoral uses events in nature to make a statement of love as does Llueve Sobre el Rio (Rain on the River). The coldness of the rain represents the coldness of the beloved's heart.

Two settings by Falla of poems by his friend Gregorio M. Sierra, dedicated to Sierra's wife Maria Legarraga, have a contemporary message. Oración de las Madres que Tienen a sus Hijos en Brazos (Prayer for mothers who have their sons in their arms) is a prayer to Jesus that the sweet child at her breast not grow up to become a solider. El Pan de Ronda que Sabe a Verdad (The bread from Ronda that tastes like truth) has a joyous message and a lively Spanish sound.

A word from our singer about applause which had come at the end of each song before intermission allowed her to concentrate on the mood of each song in the second half. It is important that music departments get the word out to language department students about the distraction caused by inappropriate applause. Concert etiquette requires that you clap at the end of a set listed together in the printed program. If you're confused, pay attention to the singer's actions: if she doesn't bow and instead of smiling looks down or away, it's because she is composing herself for the next song and doesn't expect applause yet.

Eduardo Toldrá (1895-1962) is new to me. He was an important violinist, conductor and composer of many songs in his native Catalan language as well as pieces for violin and chamber groups. The six songs we heard are settings of 15th-16th century Castillian poets from Spain's "Golden Age."

Listening to Cantarcillo (Little Song, also called Little Carol of the Virgin) I recognized the words. Mary asks the angels to still the palm branches because her child sleeps. Hugo Wolf set a German translation of the text he called Die ihr schwebet in his Spanish Liederbuch (1891). A careful reading of the Spanish text had an added dimension of meaning: "Rigorous ice storms are approaching him, You see that I have nothing with which to save him." Mary's foreboding of what lies ahead in Jesus' life simply is not there in the Wolf text.

The other songs are about love: a happy shepherd maiden; looking into beautiful green eyes and falling in love; the beauty of the beloved on St. John's Day morning and generally loving at a distance filling the human desire for closeness in imagination only.

The closing set was by a student of Toldrá, Xavier Montsalvatge, also from Catalonia, who spent time abroad, especially in Central America. The texts are poems by members of the Spanish Generation of 1927. They portray life for blacks in Cuba after the Spanish-American War in ironic terms. Cuba as-it-had-been was lost when "Si" became "Yes" after the American gunboats came in Cuba Dentro de un Piano (Cuba inside a piano). The first of Cinco canciones negras demonstrates Montsalvatge's usual elegant fusion of color, rhythm and theatrical flair. The cycle has gained great popularity worldwide. We heard it first in 2004 by our local contralto Sondra Gelb and later by mezzo-soprano Keri Alkema at Art Song of Williamsburg in 2006.

Punto de Habañera tells of a creole girl in her white crinoline walking down the street by the sea. Sailors gawk and desire this sensuous but pure young woman. The singer recreates in a cabaret sound and a vocalise ending every fiber of the girl's youth and sensuality. The madness in Chévere (Man with a knife) was palpable, The vocal tango of Canción de Cuna para Dormir á un Negrito (Cradle song for a little black boy) followed by the fast paced Canto Negro was lovely. The freedom of Ms. Tintes-Schuermann's voice seemed to capture the soul of these creations.

These is a promise of a CD in the works. I look forward to the day when I can become more familiar with these songs and these performers.

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