from the Greenwich Citizen, June 2010
El Cimarrón Astounds, Puzzles, Rivets Audience
Forget consonance. Forget comfort. Forget melody, harmony, rhythm, and tonality, as we have known them. Once those strictures have been put aside, get ready for an astonishing experience, where music escapes all formal traditions, and becomes the sounds and murmurs of a forest, the rasp of farm machinery, the beating of a chain, and the aural equivalent of raw, remembered emotion.
But that experience, like music itself, is evanescent, and the opportunity has passed -- until next year.
The Greenwich Music Festival and its talented cadre of designers, choreo-graphers, and technicians presented El Cimarrón (The Runaway Slave), which was as much a theatrical and visual experience as a musical one. The first actual staging of a 1970 concert work by the radical Communist composer Hans Werner Henze continued the Festival’s breaking down of the boundaries of classical music, creating a crossover blend of the musical traditions of many countries and cultures. And it did it within the framework of exploring Cuba’s music and history in its 7th season.
Originally composed as’ “Recital for Four Musicians”, a singer and three instrumentalists, El Cimarrón has been re-envisioned by the gifted directors of the Festival, Robert Ainsley and Ted Huffman, as a sort of mini-opera, with one voice, that of Eugene Perry, the runaway slave, in a long, solo recitativo. The personal history he recounts in music was played out in dance, as four exceptional dancers represented figures in the narrative as he sang and spoke it.
Robert Ainsley, the Festival’s musical director, introduced the evening by thanking the board, the hosts and hostesses, and Austin Scarlett for his costume design. He, as musical director and conductor, sees this work as being about freedom: the freedom of the people of Cuba, the freedom of El Cimarrón, and the freedom from fidelity to masters: political, moral and personal. He told the audience that they would hear Asian and Caribbean influences in the instrumentation, with bamboo sticks and sighing winds, and African in the conga drums, the gongas, the marimba. This was an understatement. The flutist, the virtuosic Claire Chase, played four varieties of her instrument, as well as a harmonium and other unknowns. Guitarist Daniel Lippe, and energetic percussionist Nathan Davis, all members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, went to an entirely new level of performance, and physical agility.
To open the performance, the black, industrial set, went totally dark, as did the auditorium. It was a transition, and when the lights came up, the baritone Eugene Perry began his story as Esteban Montejo, the real-life slave upon whose life the work is based.
The dancers, in highly stylized movements by choreographer Zack Winokur, were quite wonderful as the characters in the protagonist’s memory: the cruel master, the women, himself as both a youth and a young man, as the story of his escape, sojourn in the woods, move to Havana, participation in the slave revolt of 1895, and eventual return to a much-changed, slave-free plantation progressed. There was an anti-priest section, an evocation/condemnation of engineers section, and a revolutionary section. As spirits from the singer’s dreams and stories, the dancers, Manelich Minniefee, Andrew Murdock, Jose Tena, and Yara Travieso, donned costumes of birds and ghosts and were quite terrifying, and immensely powerful.
Conductor Robert Ainsley, working from a score that had neither bars nor time signature, elicited a powerful, complex performance from the musicians, and from baritone Perry, whose story was often in sprechgesang, and employed a high falsetto, conveying his aspirations? Desperation? It didn’t matter.
We, the audience for El Cimarrón, were unexpectedly hurtled back to the very origins of music, when rocks struck served as percussion, the voice as instrument, the leaves, wind and water as accompaniment. That the Greenwich Music Festival was able to portray the entire history of musical sound within this short presentation was brilliance. That the production itself conveyed dream states, memory, phantasms, and actual events was akin to harnessing the music of the spheres, and bringing it to earth: sheer genius.
The 2011 Festival will feature La Voix Humaine of Francis Poulenc, and is scheduled for June 5-10, 2011.
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Greenwich Citizen, June