Several years ago, I met Darwin Aquino by phone…out of the blue my pianist friend Daniel Daroca decided to call him, without any previous introduction. We had found his blog on the internet, and saw that he was the director of a youth orchestra in Dominican Republic, along the lines of “el sistema” from Venezuela. Gleaning over the blog, we also saw that he was also composer and violinist. Several years later, we met in person when he was celebrated in a composer showcase concert produced by the Association of Dominican Classical Artists in New York City. We spoke briefly about him writing me a piece, using texts by a Dominican female poet that I would need to research and elect. At the time I had struck a friendship with Dominican York poet Marisol Espaillat. I told Marisol I needed help identifying a female Dominican poet that I could look into for texts for this new composition for voice and piano. We met at Caliope (since closed), a Dominican bookstore in Washington Heights, where I made several purchases, but I did not take my research further at that time.
Pianist, composer and director of North South Consonance Max Lifchitz knew of my friendship with Darwin. Upon receiving a special grant from the University of Albany to do a special concert, master class and talks regarding inclusion of minorities in classical music, he suggested I collaborate with Darwin in creating a new piece we could premiere on October 27th, the season opening concert for North South Consonance in Manhattan. The concert would then be repeated at the Performing Arts Center in Albany (NY) on October 29, 2013. With a firm date and project on hand, I had to get serious about finding texts for this new song cycle.
I came across the poem “Mi vaso verde” by Altagracia Saviñón (1886-1942) via my friend, the painter and theater designer José Miura. He mentioned that Saviñón is considered the first “symbolist” poet of Dominican Republic. Chronologically coinciding with the time period of the French Symbolists, hers is a melancholic story: a poet of great promise, composing her best most well-known poem at age 17, at an early age exhibited signs of mental illness and lived most of her adult life in an insane asylum, victim of an apparent schizophrenia. Her whole reputation and place in the canon of Dominican literature is based on this poem, which translates into “My green vase”. José wrote the poem in a beautiful card in his own hand writing, which I still conserve. I sent the poem to Darwin, and he was immediately enchanted by the text. Still needing a second poem, I posed my question to painter and writer Fernando Ureña Rib, who suggested the moving poem by Dominican female poet who’s nome de plume was “Carmen Natalia”. Carmen Natalia Bonilla Martinez (1916-1976), in contrast to Saviñón, realized a full life, in which she became a writer of great distinction in prose, poetry and theater, and became both an early feminist and political dissenter to the then dictator of Dominican Republic Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Carmen Natalia emigrated to Puerto Rico, and she was promptly “erased” from the literary canons of her country. After the death of said dictator she returned to Santo Domingo, and presently has been recognized as one of the great Dominican poets. Fernando suggested I use “Poema de la eternidad cansada”, in which the symbol of an old dress is used to bring out the hypocrisy of societal hypocrisy, and the themes of imposed societal and cultural roles upon women.
With Darwin’s interest in historical subjects and themes in his composition, both of these poems provided the source of inspiration he needed. The result is a brief cycle entitled “Perfume”, comprised of three songs: I Las Flores II Eternidad Cansada III Mi vaso verde.
The composer choose to interpose these two poems, making a synthesis that is dynamic, in which one text leads into the other seamlessly. The first song is built on an almost naïve happy melody that repeats in a joviality and lightness that changes almost abruptly into the miniature “Eternidad Cansada”, which is only four bars long. Marked Libre, con angustia on repetitive notes, the song follows immediately without a break into the hypnotic and final “Mi vaso verde”. This last song, the most haunting of the cycle, has a repeated leitmotif of two falling notes C# and A natural, echoed throughout as well as directions for the mezzo-soprano to strike two water filled glasses on stage, that play these actual pitches. Recitative like, with indications for certain passages to be done without vibrato, in some instances in Sprechstimme, the last two pages have a dramatic climax, the first to a high b flat, and the second and final into a repeated ostinato that in my imagination, emulates the laughter of the maddened Altagracia Saviñón.
Although the songs have a modern aesthetic, they never approach atonality; they are almost expressionist and explore the possible harmonic and vocal effects that help bring out these texts in the most dramatic way possible.
I plan on explaining briefly what the songs are about, a very brief history of both poets and about Darwin’s hopes for this new creation:
“From these lines from which emanate these three songs, are reflexions about life and death. Interpreted without interreption, the cycle begins with “Flowers”; this text represents “existence” (perfume) of the flower that is bound by water (life) contained in “My green vase”, the dramatic song which concludes the cycle. The second song, “Eternal Tiredness” symbolizes death and unites the title of the poems by Martinez Bonilla and Saviñón”.