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Ernesto Lecuona: The Gershwin of Cuba

Ernesto Lecuona: The Gershwin of Cuba

Ernesto Lecuona: The Gershwin of Cuba
Ernesto Lecuona

With three titans of the piano – Chucho Valdés, Gonzalo Rubalcaba & Michel Camilo – paying tribute to Cuba's grand maestro Ernesto Lecuona at SFJAZZ on May 25-28, SFJAZZ Director of Education Rebeca Mauleón traces the legacy of "The Gershwin of Cuba."

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Described as a “melodic genius” and one of the most iconic composers to emerge from the island of Cuba, Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) was a masterful pianist, child prodigy, and composer of over 600 works, the first composed at age 12. His contributions to music are universally acknowledged as the essence of “cubanía” (Cuban identity) for their fusion of Spanish and African ingredients, and despite his enormous popularity and worldwide acclaim, those closest to him affirmed Lecuona’s extraordinary modesty and humility. Born in 1895 in the Guanabacoa municipality of Havana, Ernesto first surprised his family when, at age three, he was able to pick out several well-known ballads of the day at the piano. He began studying the piano under the tutelage of his sister Ernestina, herself quite the accomplished pianist and 13 years Lecuona’s senior.

By age five, Ernesto already had notable command of the instrument, having given recitals at various social clubs, and went on to earn first place and a national gold medal when he graduated from the National Conservatory at age 18. He studied privately with several master musicians, namely Hubert de Blanck, a Dutch emigre to Havana and the founder of the Cuba’s first conservatory. Ernesto would soon travel the globe as a concert pianist, cementing not only his mastery of the instrument and the works of Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Grieg, among others, but also his prolific compositional abilities, as his work garnered international acclaim. Lecuona was also the first Cuban musician to produce player-piano rolls of his compositions. A visit to the U.S. in 1931 included a performance at the Hollywood Bowl, where he chose to perform George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Unbeknownst to Lecuona, Gershwin was in the audience, and insisted on meeting the Cuban pianist who, he exclaimed, was one of the best interpreters of his piece that he had ever heard!

As he evolved his compositional style, Lecuona began to explore the nuances of Cuban nationalism in his approach, creating a fluid blend of the European classical tradition with the creole inflections of Spanish zarzuelas and African-influenced folk rhythms. Like his influential predecessor Ignacio Cervantes, Lecuona cultivated a style that spoke to the Afro-Cuban roots of dance-oriented music, highlighting the pulsating and repetitive rhythms at the core of Cuba’s most popular styles, in a perfect blend with European concert music. But beyond that, he was an exceptionally gifted musician with a penchant for infectious and highly “singable” melodies.

Among his many enduring compositions, Lecuona’s piano pieces are crafted within the tradition of the 19th century Cuban danza, utilizing left-hand motifs that provide an underlying syncopation and tension underneath exquisite right-hand melodies. Among the 70 or so of these pieces, the most timeless and frequently played are “Danza Lucumí,” “La Comparsa,” and the celebrated “La Malagueña,” performed by countless concert pianists to this day. Lecuona also recorded numerous full-length albums, toured extensively, and conducted several of his large-scale orchestral works, including vernacular theater pieces such as “Maria La O,” and his “Rapsodia Negra” (black rhapsody), which premiered in 1943 at Carnegie Hall. Much like George Gershwin within American jazz, Lecuona’s compositional cannon not only became known the world over, it would help to define the 20th century aesthetic of Cuban popular music.

Furthermore, his pianistic technique would permanently shape performance practice in Cuba, making his works required study for all Cuban conservatory students well into the 21st century. And although his latter years focused less on the piano and more on composition and conducting, Lecuona maintained an absolute connection to his roots while abroad, continuing to produce Cuban music concerts that highlighted his nostalgia for his homeland. His indelible works are a joy to behold, and are a reminder of the extraordinary cultural blend that is Cuban music.

We celebrate this giant of music with three titans of the piano, as we pay tribute to Ernesto Lecuona on May 24-27th at the SFJAZZ Center. Taking the stage for a series of solo, duo and trio performances are two of Cuba’s greatest living and award-winning virtuoso pianists, Jesús “Chucho” Valdés (son of legendary figure Bebo Valdés), and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, along with acclaimed Dominican pianist Michel Camilo. These three titans first came together to honor Lecuona in a documentary-style concert film entitled "Playing Lecuona," with each pianist individually (or in a group setting) providing his own interpretation of the composer's indelible works. Yet it was SFJAZZ that brought them together in the flesh for a memorable concert in the summer of 2015, when Valdés, Rubalcaba and Camilo played an acoustic program of Lecuona's music. For those of you who witnessed this magnificent performance at Davies Symphony Hall, you can attest to the unforgettable magic on display that evening. And for those of you who didn’t, I have just three simple words: don’t miss it!

— Rebeca

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