Hot February Nights

Classic Arts Features   Hot February Nights
Legends of flamenco come to Carnegie Hall next month for a four-day festival.

"It's increasingly rare to see just the singer and guitarist together on the stage," went a lament recently by Álvarez Caballero, an influential Spanish flamenco critic. "And it will soon become an archaeological relic. I hope I'm wrong."

He is. As with jazz and blues and folk in the United States, enthusiasm for flamenco in Spain is usually accompanied by concern for its purity. Thus Caballero's worry. But flamenco never really was endangered in spirit and, like jazz and blues here, it was built to evolve.

Still, the concerns do press a valid point. Like jazz, blues, and folk, flamenco is an outcast music that has always mixed influences of various cultures (mostly displaced) in order to forge an identity that is based on a delicate balance of past and present. The placement in time is a serious consideration. So is the flexibility of tradition.

During Carnegie Hall's four-night flamenco festival next month, you will, indeed, hear just a singer and guitarist together, each steeped in tradition at its highest level. Enrique Morente is really the last in a great line of champions of flamenco song. Guitarist José Fernández Torres, better known as "Tomatito," spent 15 years as accompanist for the singer Camarón de la Isla, a true pillar of tradition; he inherited that role from Paco de Lucìa. Yet both musicians have used their fame and their technical command to take risks, expanding flamenco's range and appeal. They perform as a double bill on February 12 in Stern Auditorium.

"Flamenco tradition embraces an enormous range of rhythmic styles, harmonic possibilities, and geographic variations," says Tomatito. "To me, it represents a way of life or a mind-set and certainly much more than a particular type of music."

Flamenco has always meant more than music, and it has carried with it the requirement to express complex emotions that are not easily defined. The Spanish poet Garcìa Lorca once wrote that duende, the mysterious, untranslatable emotional charge that gives flamenco its overwhelming power, emanates from "the final blood-filled room of the soul."

"The cantaor [flamenco singer] is a vehicle through which the most agonizing or most jubilant of human emotions is conveyed," says Morente. "I guess our job is to re-create the sound of Andalusìa's landscape using only the voice."

Although dance is emblematic of flamenco, Carnegie Hall's festival, part of the 2005 New York Flamenco Festival, focuses primarily on the interaction between purely musical elements‹between singers, guitarists, clappers, percussionists, and others. Despite wildly percussive passages and moments of emotional abandon, there is a complex and nuanced relationship between these elements. It is a chamber music of sorts.

The opening concert of the Carnegie Hall festival, on February 10, explores the guitar's role in this genre. It brings together two authoritative guitarists, José Marìa Gallardo and Juan Manuel Cañizares. Cañizares plays flamenco guitar and Gallardo, Spanish classical guitar.

"We are bringing together two worlds that are closely related," says producer Miguel Marin of the evening. "Audiences will hear two instruments that look alike, for the most part, but which are very different. The techniques are different, and the feeling is different." At Carnegie Hall, both guitarists will play from their customary repertoires and the two will venture into each other's stylistic waters.

Mayte Martìn, who performs on February 11, is a standard-bearing singer who is anything but conventional. She is not from Andalusìa but Barcelona. She writes many of her own lyrics and compositions, although she is an adept interpreter. And she brings a classically oriented vocal technique to bear on flamenco's expressive range. At Carnegie Hall, Martìn will sing many of the songs that are on her recording Querencia and will make use of some nontraditional instrumentation, including violin, viola, cello, and double bass.

The final night of the series, February 13, is billed as "Flamenco at the Crossroads" and deals directly with the theme of innovation through stylistic diversity. It places Carmen Linares, one of flamenco's most emblematic voices, in the company of a new generation of standard-bearers, and examines not just the resilience of these voices but their explorations of other musical traditions and styles.

Producer Marin says that with his New York productions, he likes to surprise audiences‹to present flamenco at its highest level but also to help combat any "tourist" identifications with the music.

"Flamenco at the Crossroads" promises some surprises. Linares is likely to interpret some popular ballads as flamenco pieces, singer Miguel Poveda will display the influence of Argentinian tango, and Diego Carrasco will offer a version of the song "Hello, Dolly!"

Like American jazz and blues, flamenco is driven by the voice, by a specific rhythmic science, and by an elusive but compelling emotional appeal. Hearing this music in a pure concert setting, with the focus on interactions of singers and musicians, we can peer into some of the machinery of its magical expression. And we can rest assured that it is forever purified through reinvention.

Larry Blumenfeld is editor-at-large of Jazziz magazine. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice.

Recommended Reading: