Celebrating an Eclectic, Dynamic Force in Venezuelan Classical Music

by delarue

“I’m having a great time up here,” bassist Gonzalo Teppa told his bandmates with an unselfconsciously grin. He’d been exchanging sly rhythmic riffs all night with the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro, Jorge Glem. Not something you might expect at a concert celebrating the work of a pioneering classical composer.

Friday night at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, an all-star chamber orchestra played the first-ever career retrospective of music by Aldemaro Romero, a 20th century Venezuelan counterpart to Ernesto Lecuona. Romero came to New York at age 34 with his family and worked prolifically as an arranger in both classical and jazz before returning to found the Caracas Philharmonic Orchestra. His 1955 symphonic album Dinner in Caracas, focusing on his signature mashup of neoromanticism and a wide array of styles from across the Americas, was a huge global hit. His son Aldemaro Jr., a biologist and dean of the college, conducted a shapeshifting ensemble which also comprised the Alexander String Quartet, pianist/singer Selene Quiroga, pianist Gonzalo Grau and drummer Fabio Rojas.

In an eerie stroke of fate, the concert took place on the exact spot on 25th Street that housed the RCA studio where Romero Sr. recorded his famous album. The younger Romero, who also contributed a couple of witty cameos on melodica, did not know this until shortly before the performance. “It gave me goosebumps,” he admitted. That the energy and vitality of the show was as fresh as it was testifies not only to the liveliness of the music but also the fact that the group had come up with some of the charts only a couple of days beforehand.

And the concert was anything but stuffy. This music is full of life, and color, and much of it was made for dancing. Subtle rhythmic shifts were everywhere, referencing grooves from the Romeros’ home turf to Cuba, Mexico and ultimately, Spain. The most striking of the instrumental numbers was Capriccio for Viola and Piano, a world premiere given a vigorously incisive workout by Quiroga and Alexander Quartet violist Paul Yarbrough.

Another world premiere, the second movement of the Concerto for Teresa (a dedication to a Venezuelan New York Philharmnoic member ) rose from starkly elegaic into a lush, majestic remembrance. And the entire string section closed with Fuga Con Pajarillo, the most widely performed piece on the bill, an expansive bit of neoromantic dancefloor indulgence that brought to mind Astor Piazzolla’s late work.

When’s the last time you saw a classical pianist move to the mic for a display of vocal power and versatility? The elder Romero probably would have gotten a kick out of the fact that global audiences probably know Quiroga best as a member of irrepressible ska-punk band Desorden Publico. With dramatic flair and often plaintive nuance, she delivered a series of moody, crescendoing ballads, through the expectancy and longing of Quien to the bouncy, salsa-tinged El Musiquito to the uneasily lilting Lo Que Paso Contigo (What’s Up with You), backed by Glem and Teppa’s erudite jousting. Baruch’s choir the Blue Notes, strolling down the stairs on both side of the audience, added harmonic enhancement.

As is across the various CUNY campuses, diversity rules at Baruch. This is the real New York. The next concert in this year’s eclectic season is a holiday show on Dec 5 at 8 PM with pianist Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble, who blend acerbic klezmer and latin jazz sounds. Cover is $26/$11 stud.