Tag Archives: North South Consonance

The mysteries of the human heart…”Me acerco, y me retiro”: a musical setting of a poem by Sor Juana de la Cruz by composer Max Lifchitz


I was asked by the pianist and composer Max Lifchitz to participate once more in a concert dedicated to the classical composers of Mexico for the annual “Cinco de Mayo Celebration” vocal concert presented by North South Consonance.  The concert will take place on Sunday May 3, 2015  at 3 PM at the Christ and St. Stephen’s church in NYC.  I had the idea of asking my colleague, contralto Celeste Mann to join me in the vocal recital in order to make the occasion more celebratory.  I also suggested that Max compose a new piece for piano and two female voices for us to debut at this concert.

Celeste and I left the choice of text up to the composer, and were intrigued to find that he had chosen a poem by the Mexican nun, writer and poet Sor Juana de la Cruz (1651-1695) from what is considered her “Lesbian Love Poetry” canon, “Me acerco, y  me retiro”.

Me acerco y me retiro:
¿quién sino yo hallar puedo
a la ausencia en los ojos
la presencia en lo lejos?

Del desprecio de Filis,
infelice, me ausento.
¡Ay de aquel en quien es
aun pérdida el desprecio!

Tan atento la adoro
que, en el mal que padezco,
no siento sus rigores
tanto como el perderlos.

No pierdo, al partir, sólo
los bienes que poseo,
si en Filis, que no es mía,
pierdo lo que no pierdo.

¡Ay de quien un desdén
lograba tan atento,
que por no ser dolor
no se atrevió a ser premio!

Pues viendo, en mi destino,
preciso mi destierro,
me desdeñaba más
porque perdiera menos.

¡Ay! ¿Quién te enseño, Filis,
tan primoroso medio:
vedar a los desdenes
el traje del afecto?

A vivir ignorado
de tus luces, me ausento
donde ni aun mi mal sirva
a tu desdén de obsequio.


Sor Juana de la Cruz

I had not read Sor Juana since my days in college, and was happy to look her up again…considered one of the finest exponents of Spain’s Golden Age of literature, as well as being considered the beginning of Mexican literature, Sor Juana’s independence, intellect, her cloistered life in which she was able to arrange for her cell to become a highly sought after salon attended by the intellectual elite of what was then Viceroyalty of Spain in Mexico, makes her a towering figure of Spanish letters as well as modern women’s gender studies and model for many women writers of Latin America.  The poem that Lifchitz chose is generally acknowledged as fruit of a “romantic” friendship (perhaps not a lesbian relationship as we would understand it in modern times, scholars suggest) that Sor Juana had with a Mexican countess.  Nevertheless, the text speaks of an intimate window for us to peak thru of Sor Juana’s experience of love, the push and pull of an emotional upheaval caused by the uncertainty of her friend’s feelings towards her.  The setting for two female voices creates the sensation that is familiar to me, of brain or heart speaking to itself, sometimes obsessively, questioning and in the end berating…

The setting includes passages of trumpet like exclamations in the higher voice with searing emotion; the contralto is set in a much lower range, sounding like a private mussing, a mumbled prayer almost. The choice to compose a setting for two female voices serves to accentuate a tone of an intense internal debate…Sor Juana uses the pastoral poetry pseudonym of “Fillis”, as not to disclose the real identity of the lady in question.  Preceded by a dramatic piano introduction, the composer sets the stage for the dramatic soliloquy for two female voices to unfold.

I asked Max Lifchitz to write a few words about the piece, I include here below:

“My musical setting attempts to both capture and portray the melancholic feelings of exasperation and resignation evident in Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s poetic lines. Her poem  “Me acerco y me retiro” (I approach and withdraw) clearly deals with unrequited love and expresses deep feelings of despondency and sadness over a lover’s disdain. A celebrity during her lifetime, Sor Juana (1651-1695)  came to new prominence in the late 20th century with the rise of feminism and women’s writing, officially being credited as the first published feminist of the New World.
I approached the writing of the duet with unusual trepidation and anxiety. Dealing with a poem by one of Mexico’s most revered intellectuals inspired me to juxtapose old-fashioned sounding harmonies with more present-day constructs. It also stirred me to compose lengthy piano interludes hoping to provide an adequate musical commentary to the multiple emotions and shadings implied in the poetry. I also exercised extreme caution and respect denoting the poetry’s sapphic meter with its many starts and stops. Overall, I sought to enhance the forcefulness and urgency of Sor Juana’s poetry.”

Composer Max Lifchitz

The word premiere of “Me acerco, y me retiro” by Max Lifchitz will take place on Sunday May 3, 2015 at 3 PM, as part of the Cinco de Mayo Celebration concert of vocal music by classical composers of Mexico at the Christ and St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan, located at 120 W. 69th Street.  Included in this vocal concert are songs by Manuel Ponce, Rodolfo Halffter, Salvador Moreno and Maria Grever.
May 3 Revised 4 (2)

Latin American Art Song: A Panoramic View on October 27th in Manhattan

Anna _Tonna_mantilla_2010

Mezzo soprano Anna Tonna

Hispanic Heritage Month will soon be upon us!  Stretching from Sept. 15 to October 15 of 2013, there many events across the nation that will celebrate the achievements and culture of American citizens of Latin American heritage.  Not to be left behind, North South Consonance, a musical organization directed by composer and pianist Max Lifchitz, who has championed the cause of composers from Latin America since 1980 asked me to present  a recital of songs for piano and voice called “Latin American Art Song:  A Panoramic View”.  The concert will take place at the Christ and St. Stephens Church in Manhattan, located at (W. 69th Street, between Broadway and Columbus) on October 27th at 3 PM.

For the occasion of this recital as well as the presentation at SUNY Albany on October 29th, I took the opportunity to commission a new cycle for mezzo and piano from the young Dominican composer, violinist and orchestral director Darwin Aquino.  It was up to me to find texts, and I had the idea of using female Dominican poet for this new work.  I was given a poem by painter and friend José Miura called “Mi vaso verde”  by the the only “Symbolist” Dominican poet, Altagracia Saviñon.  The second poem came from Dominican writer and current cultural attaché for the Dominican government in Berlin, Fernando Ureña Rib, his suggestion was “Poema de la Eternidad Cansada” by Carmen Martinez Bonilla.  The cycle incorporates excerpts from these two poems in the form of three songs under the cycle title of “Perfume”, dedicated to both the Dominican pianist Maria Fatima Geraldes and  myself.  The settings are modernist, and at one point I “play” two glasses of water.  The composer hopes to be with us at the premiere on October 27th.


Dominican composer, violinist and conductor Darwin Aquino

Part of my appearance at SUNY Albany includes an informal masterclass with voice students regarding Latin American song, and  small talk at Max Lifschitz’s class on Latin American music at the University.  It amounts to a small residency, in which I will have the opportunity of sharing information about the lesser known Latin American composers that I am showcasing in the recital.


The program has been chosen; some of the composer names are familiar, others are not.  Its a shame that there is difficulty in getting editions of Latin American art song, many composers are not known to singers and the song recital public here in the US…most of the music I own is from photocopies, with the exception of the songs I find still in print by Peer Southern Classic of composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Carlos Chavez, Julian Orbón and Manuel Ponce.  The “Giants” of Latin American song are there, but so many more are not…there are a couple of interesting anthologies of Latin American song, of note are The Latin American Art Song: A Critical Anthology and Interpretative Guide for Singers (English and Spanish Edition) edited Patricia Caicedo and The Art Song in Latin America: Selected Works by Twentieth-Century Composers (Sheet Music) edited by Kathleen L. Wilson, both available through Classical Vocal Reprints, my favorite purveyor of vocal music in the US.

I start with the cycle “Seis poemas arcaicos” by the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce (1882-1948). The composer of the famous “Estrellita”, Ponce was a composer of all genres across the board: Classical, popular and folkloric.  This cycle uses texts from a collection of Spanish Renaissance song lyrics found in the “Cancionero de Palacio”.  Originally for piano and voice, there is an edited version of this cycle for voice and guitar by Gregg Nestor, and recorded by both Gregg and the soprano Anna Bartos.

I programmed a song by Colombian composer Antonio M. Valencia (1902-1952), the song “La luna sobre el agua de los lagos”, dedicated to the French soprano Ninon Vallin.  Valencia went to the Schola Cantorum in Paris and studied with Vincent D’Indy and Paul Braud.  The song has a definite French feel, and is part of a cycle of settings by the Colombian poet Otto de Greiff.  Given to me be a Colombian musicologist Dr. Luis Carlos Rodriguez, its part of a large cache of art songs by Colombian composers dating from the 19th century to mid 20th century that I received from him when I sang Adalgisa in a production of Norma in Medellin in 2010. Its the first time I have delved in this pile.

Dr. Rodriguez has cited the following recordings of this complete cycle by Valencia:

Elvira Garcés de Hannaford (mezzosoprano) y Luis Carlos Figueroa (piano); Martha Senn (mezzosoprano) y Blanca Uribe (piano); Emperatriz Figueroa (soprano) y Patricia Pérez Hood (piano) in her album “La cancion lirica Colombiana, available on Amazon; Patricia Caicedo as well as Marina Tafur (soprano) and Nigel Foster (piano)

I have intentions of performing the whole cycle of the Grieff settings by Valencia at  my next opportunity! They are  nice songs, the pieces are  vocal and somewhat melancholic.

Short video of music by Colombian composer Antonio Maria Valencia

I repeat the cycle by the much admired  Venezuelan female composer Modesta Bor (1926- 1998), her “Tríptico sobre Poesía Cubana” with texts by Guillén and Ballagas:



Collage of photos of the admirable composer and educator, Modesta Bor (Venezuela)

I follow with the Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla’sDos poemas Afro-Cubanas“.  This composer also studied and lived in Paris, and these songs where edited in France.  It has a definite avant-garde Afro Cuban sound, with texts by Alejo Carpentier.  The only recordings I know of of these songs are by the American soprano Phyllis Curtain.  They both allude to Santeria and the religious practices of the islands, and are intense songs.  Kind of a musical response to Picasso’s and other visual artists  to the art of Africa.  I sang it as an opening for the Center for Contemporary Opera competition many years ago, and got marked down, I guess this song was too controversial and too “contemporary” for that particular panel that year!

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is up next, with his Samba-Classico, and a curious song called Pinga-Ponga, dated 1949 and dedicated to the Catalan soprano Conxita Badía. This song was found by Max Lifschitz in the Conxita Badía archive in Barcelona. We don’t think its ever been performed in the US, and are calling it a “New York Premiere”:

Picture 119

Photo of score, Pinga-ponga by Heitor Villa-Lobos, with dedication to Catalan soprano Conxita Badía

Following the Villa-Lobos and opening the second half will be the cycle “Perfume” by Darwin Aquino b.1979. I follow that with “North Carolina Blues” by the Mexican composer Carlos Chavez (1899-1978), as well as a small excerpt from the lesser known cycle by the  Argentinian Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000), “Los ríos de la mano”, which uses a set of very touching  poems of household objects that “speak” of an internal life.   In this instance I include the songs Plancha, Galorpín, Tijera and Carretilla de madera.  There is no recording obtainable that I know of of this cycle…I had the chance of listening to a wonderful live performance by soprano Brenda Feliciano and pianist Pablo Zinger at the Americas Society in New York City last year.

I end the whole program with the cycle of three poems by Federico García Lorca “Three Spanish Songs” (1959) by Ramiro Cortés (1933-1984), the first American composer of Latin American descent to achieve a notable success in the contemporary American music scene in the 1950’s:

Anna Tonna and Max Lifchitz performing “Adivnanza de la Guitarra” by Ramiro Cortés

His reading of the Lorca texts are remarkable; with its flamenco rhythms, guitar like figures and expressive vocal line, he crowns both the first song and last song in the cycle with a dramatic finish. I first read about this cycle in the book “A singer’s guide to American Art Song 1870-1980” by Victoria Etnier Villamil.  For more on Ramiro Cortés, see his website: www.ramirocortes.com/

It should be a fun recital!