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Hilliard Havana tribute


The Hilliard tribute concert by the Cuban Sine Nomine ensemble was amazing. They are a phenomenally gifted group – not remotely like the Hilliards (think more Latin American King’s Singers, if that’s not an oxymoron), but all the more impressive for that. It was very touching that the festival was celebrating both the HE’s 40 years and Arvo Part’s 80th birthday. As I was going to be there anyway, they’d got in touch a few months ago to ask for advice on what pieces to do, and whether it would be OK to do the Morales with trumpet. My only suggestion was not to try and imitate the model but do something that just acknowledged it. The Morales worked well (it’s just a chord sequence so perfect for improvising over) and there was no attempt imitate Jan Garbarek. They also used the trumpet in a Hassler piece that the Hilliards didn’t do but was the kind of piece we might have done.  It worked spectacularly well. The young trumpeter, Yasek Manzano really came into his own in the encore, a fiery version of Joshua fit de battle of Jericho where he could really let rip. It was a wonderful collection of voices – especially the countertenors. Two of them had been winners in the contest earlier in the week, full-on and over the top, and here they were perfect ensemble countertenors. It was an extraordinary transformation and a great tribute to their musicianship and sense of purpose. They’re directed by Maestra Leonor Suarez, who sometimes conducted but mostly left the singers to their own devices. They were usually more than one to a part and were obviously rehearsed to perfection (two of the ways they differed from the Hilliards) but they were perfectly in tune, energetic (they can even dance…), well balanced and blended, and great communicators. It was a privilege to be there, and I’m sure my former colleagues would have loved it too.



Ariel and I spent the afternoon exploring the old city. This was a great adventure. It takes a bit of getting used to as it’s unlike any other city on the planet. There’s no sign of big business, no towering new hotels, no advertisements, no stressed people struggling to get from A to B. It’s the most relaxed and informal city I’ve ever been to. But that doesn’t come close to telling you what it’s actually like. In some ways it’s as though time has stopped since the revolution in the 1950s – many of the grand Spanish baroque buildings are just as they were then or have been left to decay, or patched up to make living quarters or mysterious small enterprises . But just as you think the whole city’s falling apart you come across beautiful restoration. Once you’ve got over the architecture you begin to see the people – the ethnic mix (the whole spectrum from white to black and almost never two of the same shade at the same time – an object lesson in social cohesion), the colourful life of the street. I was very fortunate to have Ariel with me, as whenever anyone approached us he would chat away and they’d end up talking about football or the problems of being an Argentinean (even the drug dealer, a jovial villain who knew he had no hope of a sale but enjoyed a bit of Cuban-Argentinean repartee). I’ve not yet met a Cuban who wasn’t utterly charming. It was very humid, but as the sun went down it cooled a bit and the lights came on. That’s another very distinctive characteristic – minimum lighting creating a sort of gloomy intimacy. It’s often loud, and on the main streets you see those fabulous cars smoking past, but most of the streets in the old city are too narrow for cars. You just have to watch out for bicycle taxis, though even these are very polite in their attempts to avoid you. We forgot to change some local currency, which is what you need to do for the proper Cuban experience (there are two varieties of peso, one convertible and tied to the dollar, the other the one in which Cubans are paid and which you need once you get off the tourist track). That was the only downside (apart from the fume-laden air). We were also approach by people who’d been to our concert – so touching to meet people who had themselves been touched by what we did two nights before.

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