Saturday, May 2, 2015

Latin Jazz at the Toronto Symphony

The World Premiere of Sinfonia Afrocubana by Hilario Duran brought 86 musicians onto the Roy Thompson stage for a Latin Jazz celebration. The original jazz trio (piano, bass and drums) was accompanied by Bata drums, Guiro, kettle drums, snares, Xylophone, and of course the full string and brass section.

Bata drums are instruments first used in sacred and religious music, and it was likely the first time these had sat with a full orchestra.

Our host for the evening, Tom Allen, explained how Cuba came to its unique musical personality. First an island of indigenous people, taken over by Spaniards, it became a home and not simply a production centre for the latest crops. The African slaves on this island could earn their freedom, and many did. By the time the French Haitian landowners fled the revolution on their island for the safety of the Cuban shore, half of the Black population were free men. Music was a mix of African beat, Spanish rhythm, religious hymns, and French influence. Ships regularly delivered their cargo to none other than New Orleans, and each time they returned, they came with more music from the American Jazz world:  blues, jazz, dixieland. No wonder, then, why the music has such a unique sound.

Hilario's Sinfonia got a standing ovation by many in the audience. Introduced the way it had been by Tom Allen, I could hear samples of its heritage from beginning to end and recognized a bit of flamenco, American blues, a touch of Gershwin. Definitely a full sound, sometimes almost cacophony, and at others a whispered melody. Like the history of Cuba itself.

Families of the trio were in the audience, included one little girl of about 7 that called out to her father on stage in the quiet between movements. An unintentional grace note.

There were two other pieces of music played that evening, symphonic dances from Bernstein's West Side Story and Ginaster's: Malambo from Estancia. Roberto Minczuk was the conductor and I could feel his exuberance all the way up in the back of the house.

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