Last night at Symphony Space, the Toomai String Quintet played an irrepressibly dancing album release show for their new one, Cuerdas Cubanas, which would have made Ernesto Lecuona proud. The “Cuban Gershwin,” as bandleader and bassist Andrew Roitstein aptly characterized him, is well represented on the record and likewise in the concert program, a mix of elegantly serpentine themes with the Cuban composer’s signature blend of European classical, flamenco, Romany and indigenous sounds.
Cellist Hamilton Berry grinningly told the crowd that Roitstein’s new arrangements, many of them based on material originally written for piano or orchestra, were pretty awesome, and he wasn’t kidding. Roitstein has an obvious affinity for Lecuona’s work, and his bandmates – who also include violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Fortes and violist Erin Wight – reveled in his nifty exchanges of phrases and contrapuntal voicings.
You might not think that a singer who’s made a career in opera, as Roitstein’s sister Alina has, would necessarily be suited to singing salsa, but she also obviously gravitates toward this music. A magnetic presence in front of the band, swinging her hips and negotiating the lyrics in impressively fluent Spanish, she delivered cheery and frequently coy versions of hits made famous by Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and others.
A slinky, loopy bass and cello interweave set up Gendron’s plaintive vibrato in the night’s lilting, opening instrumental, La Comparsa. True to its title, Zamba Gitana had emphatic Romany riffage and some neat handoffs between the two violinists. The exchanges between band members were even more incisive in the phantasmagorical Gitanerias, which the group began as a real danse macabre.
There were also plenty of lighthearted moments in the set, including but hardly limited to a jaunty santeria dance, an animated thicket of pizzicato in Lecuona’s En Tres Por Cuatro, and the balmy nocturnal ambience of Manuel Ponce’s Plenilunio. There was also an interlude where a small battalion of young string players who’d been workshopping Cuban music with the quintet joined them and added extra ballast to the Israel “Cachao” Lopez hit A Gozar Con Mi Combo. Solos are still a work in progress for these kids, but when they played along with the rest of the band, the music was absolutely seamless.
The quintet encored with Lecuona’s Andalucia, shifting from uneasily acerbic Arabic-flavored chromatics to an indomitable, triumphant sway. It’s hard to think of a more perfect way to close such an eclectically enjoyable show. The Toomai String Quintet have a weekly Saturday 6 PM residency at Barbes coming up this September, where you will undoubtedly get many opportunities to hear a lot of this material.