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Area musicians explore the classical core of Cuba's musical heritage 

Playing jazz, classical and Cuban, all at once: Pianist Eric Hirsh

Photo by D.L.Anderson

Playing jazz, classical and Cuban, all at once: Pianist Eric Hirsh

Eric Hirsh grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, more than 1,000 miles from the then-off-limits streets of Havana. But his eventual immersion in Cuba's music didn't come by complete accident. In fact, it came to define much of his life.

Hirsh now leads his own jazz combo, backs the hip-hop group The Beast and supports several area salsa acts. But he began by playing music like most kids do, first learning to plink the piano while reading classical pieces from sheet music. When Hirsh was in the fourth grade, though, his parents moved him to a more versatile teacher, Carolbeth True.

"She would play Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 at the Symphony one night," Hirsh remembers, "and her weekly gig at the jazz club the next. She was just the consummate pianist."

Her versatility and pedagogy made a lasting impression on Hirsh. By age 14, he was comfortable with jazz soloing and bedrock music theory. When he was in the eighth grade, True gave Hirsh a birthday present that expanded his scope forever—an album of jazz by the Cubanismo band of trumpeter Jesus Alemañy.

"I was hooked. It really resonated with me," he says. "I bought a bunch of books and CDs about how to play that music."

As Hirsh soon discovered, strong ties between the Cuban music he was learning and the classical foundations he'd already developed had always existed. In particular, the danzón—which originated in Matanzas, Cuba around 1855, according to one origin story—paired classical strings and woodwinds with Afro-Cuban percussion. The ensembles that played those hybrids were called charangas; their danzón eventually led to dances such as the mambo, the cha-cha and salsa.

Danzón employs a baqueteo, a two-bar rhythmic cell consisting of one syncopated bar of five beats (the cinquillo) and one non-syncopated bar. Baqueteo is an embellishment of the clave rhythm, familiar from modern salsa. But unlike salsa, danzón builds around an episodic structure of theme and variation, a shape borrowed from classical music.

"The big innovation around what makes this Cuban popular dance music, and not French or English, is the rhythm," Hirsh explains. "Cinquillo is the big innovation here. You do not find that in European classical music."

This weekend, Hirsh will revisit those ties with "DANZÓN," a Mallarmé Chamber Players series concert dedicated to Cuban chamber music and the once-popular, now-obscure form that gives the program its name. The first half will present five works for various small ensembles by exemplars of the Cuban classical tradition, like Leo Brouwer and Tania León. A nine-piece charanga orchestra will then play danzón scores transcribed and arranged in North Carolina.

Those transcriptions represent the other side of Hirsh's dive into Cuban music. Primed as a Latin pianist, but with no band, Hirsh moved with his family to Chapel Hill at age 16. He attended UNC-Chapel Hill, where serendipity finally found him a gig. A junior professor named David García was assembling students for a university charanga. Hirsh joined the initial group in 2003. What started as a casual experiment soon graduated into a university-sanctioned performing ensemble: Charanga Carolina.

"There were no scores," Hirsh says. "None of this would be possible without David García. He is the one who listened to the old records and transcribed them for Charanga Carolina."

Now, a decade later, Hirsh gets to play them again.

Most of his collaborators for the Mallarmé program are either alumni or current students of Charanga Carolina. Violinist Leah Peroutka, like Hirsh, was a founding member. She teaches violin at UNC and often directs her string students toward the school's charanga, since the ensemble can add uncanny elements to their technique and vocabulary.

"I remind my students the violin tradition in Cuba is very classical. Like the ballet tradition, it was something right from Europe," she says. "There's an interesting dichotomy in that way of playing the violin, and then taking it and putting it with a really popular form."

She looks forward to returning to these reinvigorated scores.

"It brings back memories, but we all are at a different place. All of us have become professional musicians, so it will be really fun to play it in a much better way than when we first played it," Peroutka says.

Flutist Ellye Walsh only spent one semester in Charanga Carolina, but her experience was transformative.

"Coming from a purely classical background, I love how the beats kind of sit within a bar," she explains. "Instead of counting '1,2,3,4' when you're playing classical music, it's a feel. It's still precise, but it's more of a groove."

That "feel" for Cuban popular music will help Walsh deliver one classical piece during the program's first half, Tania León's "Alma." Based on the sound of wind chimes, the work mixes free passages and scripted rhythmic exchanges between the flute and piano.

"Every now and then I hear one of these charanga idioms," Walsh says. "I would have just passed right over it if I hadn't spent time playing that music."

Though the links between classical and Cuban music seem obvious to those who have played it, presenting those connections to American audiences has been a battle. Just getting the sheet music for this program, for instance, represented a massive challenge. Only one of the pieces was commercially available. Mallarmé artistic director Suzanne Rousso had to cut-and-paste parts for another. She foraged the rest from UNC's library.

"I'm sure a lot of the pieces we pulled out were never played by anyone. There's not a lot of resources available for Cuban music, although I suspect there will be more now," Rousso says, pointing to the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.

To an extent, that's the point of this show: Danzón's hybridity—European and African, classical and popular, concert hall and social club, traditional and evolving—represents the essence of Cuban music. The program reiterates that rich and varied tradition and how well it travels, even to piano-playing kids stuck in St. Louis.

"I hope we get a really diverse crowd of people who of course love classical music, but then the second half will be dance music," says Peroutka. "It would be nice if we get people to come hear two sides of the same coin."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Imported goods."

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