Sound & Spice

Lucy Gellman Photo“Que es ser Latinoamericano?” Yovianna Garcia asked at the front of the music room at Christopher Columbus Family Academy, beaming as a show of small hands reached towards the ceiling.

Garcia, who had been complaining about the midday March chill only minutes before, seemed to drive away the cold as she explained that they all had something in common – she too is Latina, and was eager to share her Puerto Rican heritage with them.

Lucy Gellman PhotoJust eight minutes down the road, members of the New Haven Chamber Orchestra donned their black performance garb, set aside boxes filled with gingerbread cookies and copies of Hänsel and Gretel, and began to warm up.

Bypassing the obvious answer – music – what could the two have in common?

A lot more, it turns out, than meets the ear. Garcia’s ensuing performance of HERENCIAS (Heritages), an “educational concert of Puerto Rican solo guitar music” supported by Pequeñas Ligas Hispanas de New Haven, was the first of two events that made Saturday a day not only of music, but interactive learning for young people in Fair Haven. The second, the New Haven Chamber Orchestra‘s Winter 2014 concert at the Fair Haven School, opened a world of heritages new and old itself.

But we’ll get to that in a minute.

A graduate of the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico and the Hartt School in Hartford, Garcia knows a thing or two about navigating heritage. At the root of her performance was a desire to share hers, of which she is deeply proud, through her guitar.

“We’ve been together 11 years,” she explained of the instrument, cradling it softly. “It’s my best friend.”

She called the venture both personal and educational: in sharing her background, she hopes to inspire others to do the same.

Inspire she did. Her presentation of each piece was preceded by a detailed explanation in English and Spanish of the work’s musical, social and political influences, leading students on an exhilarating journey through the African, Spanish, and even North American strains in Puerto Rican music.

As she played, she maintained a constant focus on and genuine interest in the students around her. The breadth of her set was impressive, and radiated energy throughout: Dan Román’s minimalist and avant-garde “Vareaxiones” (video above) reflects on the Great Depression. José Ignacio Quintón’s lighthearted “El Coquí” is downright joyous. William Ortiz’ 1947 “121st Street Rap” (excerpts below) brings to life gang fights, ambulance sirens, car alarms and early rap music as Ortiz was hearing them.

Ortiz’ work in particular engaged the audience for its real-time nature and use of spoken word and drum-like movements on the guitar. Alongside Héctor Hernández Maldonado’s “Preludio Tropical,” it brought the performance to a robust close.

Lucy Gellman PhotoJust down the road, Jessica Sack, president of the New Haven Chamber Orchestra, was welcoming families to their 2014 Winter Concert. With works including Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Witch Dance” from the opera Hänsel and Gretel (video below), Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, which includes the beloved “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture, the concert was a treat for the young listeners, many of whom who had come fully prepared in their tutus, princess gowns and even pajamas.

“We encourage dancing,” a grinning Sack told the audience before the orchestra began.

More than dancing, the concert encouraged literacy – aural and otherwise – in a new and exciting way. Sack, whose energy is contagious, carefully outlined each piece for the audience, giving the same kind of lively back story Garcia had just hours earlier. She added that this was the second year that the orchestra had reached out to children with a simple book initiative: Come to the concert, leave with a storybook tied to the music.

This year’s selection? Hänsel and Gretel, complete with gingerbread at the intermission (“but not the bad kind!” Sack specified).

As the orchestra played, it seemed the children – if not also their parents – reached right back. During “Hall of the Mountain King,” several small bodies whizzed, jumped and gesticulated wildly in front of the stage, their best attempts at pint-sized arabesques not unnoticed by members of the orchestra. Dynamic conductor Jonathan Brandani smiled widely after each movement. Sack thanked “our extraordinary dancers” at intermission. And parents seemed relieved that running towards the stage was, for once, an appropriate thing to do.

Lucy Gellman PhotoAs long as you were under four feet or so.

The Chamber Orchestra and Garcia thus share a powerful mission: to pass on a complex and deeply moving mix of traditions to listeners both young and young at heart. Seemingly oceans apart in subject matter, they stand united by a common bridge: their audiences, wide eyed, shoulders shimmying, feet tapping, have a way of leaving eager to retell – or rather, replay – the events of the afternoon.

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