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Immersed in an insular Vitier

The concert was already announced Island Night as part of the portfolio of the Jazz Plaza 2024 festival, when by chance I coincided for the first time, at least as far as I remember, with José María Vitier. It happened at the Villena Hall of Uneac, where he was presented with the Annual Recognition Award for his life's work. I was there on another matter. I did not imagine that I would have the immense privilege of seeing the artist recall his beginnings as a composer, and thank the one who has been, in his words, the only composition teacher he had and will ever have: José E. Loyola Fernández. Also to hear him talk about his beginnings as a creator and to locate as the starting point of his career as an author the moment he met his wife, the cultural manager and visual artist Silvia Rodríguez Rivera.

José María Vitier's career is as prolific as it is notorious. Will there be any Cuban with sufficient age and musical memory who can dissociate himself from iconic melodies of cinema and television that emerged from his genius? That afternoon at the Villena, the work that marked the beginning of his recognition as a composer resounded. From the first chords of the main theme of In silence it had to be, in an arrangement for guitar orchestra, a unique atmosphere was created in the hall.

If I had known then that just an hour later Magazine AM:PM would contact me to be his chronicler in the concerts that Vitier would give to the city just three days later, on January 20 and 21 at the Sala Avellaneda of the Teatro Nacional de Cuba, I would not have missed the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions. That afternoon I only managed to take a few photos of him surrounded by established musicians and young promises. I did not even dare to tell him how much enjoyment he has given me for years. 

Missed the opportunity to learn firsthand about Island NightI had to find out about the uniqueness of these concerts, thanks to Google. That's how I learned that the Havana concerts were preceded by a presentation held in November last year in Enghien-les-Bains. This commune located on the outskirts of Paris is home to the Digital Art Center, where, during the celebration of the Festival Jazz au Fil de l'Oise, Maestro Vitier -along with flautist Niurka González, Abel Acosta alternating double bass and minor percussion and percussionist Yaroldy Abreu- reviewed his work accompanied by digital images projected on stage with immersive technology. In charge of this production was Dominique Roland, who now, with her team, took on the challenge of bringing the visual spectacle to Havana.

Immersive is all that technology that makes the viewer live a virtual reality (generated through computer programs and specialized equipment), as if it were authentic. Bringing to Cuba a sample of something so relatively new allows an approach to what until now we could only appreciate through a screen. With all this in mind, I head for the Avellaneda. I have arrived an hour early and to isolate myself from the hustle and bustle of the room that is gradually filling up, I review some of the articles published by different media about Island Night. As the previous minutes pass by, I try to guess what those of us lucky enough to reach our seats will witness on this already memorable winter night.

Image: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

The stage is minimalist. Lined up from left to right are the grand piano, the double bass and the minor percussion set led by the batá drums. Illuminated with a dim red light, the space seems too large for a chamber format. A translucent screen placed a few meters before, visible despite the gloom of the room, gives away that something out of the ordinary will happen soon.

At nine o'clock Vitier takes his place and the spirited piano begins to be heard, cleanly executed. Seconds later, the four-hand percussion enters accompanied by a beam of orange light in the background that grows like the sun rising in the distance. Tempo Habanero opens the island night with a retreating winter sun.

The first images that appeared on the front screen were a bit vague. At least for those of us who were in the first balcony. Afterwards, we discovered a game of clouds that accompanied the sun in a magical, three-dimensional sunset, which the music rounded off through an impeccable audio. The end of this first piece surprised us with rapture and the room was filled with applause.

Image: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

After a brief pause, the warm notes of José María's piano playing the motif from Beatitudes IThe images resulting from the simultaneous projection on both screens created a spatial sensation that bordered on the fantastic. The images resulting from the simultaneous projection on both screens created a spatial sensation that bordered on the fantastic. An atmosphere that the flute, then the protagonist, rounded off supported by the piano and the subtle intervention of the percussion.

Danzón Imaginario brought new effects to the stage. Always at night, a pixelated rain, like confetti, flooded the space in the shape of a rectangular prism. A rain that defied gravity with capricious movements that bordered the flute and the piano. In this part, the forward effects seemed dictated by the sound of the wind instrument. Niurka's expertly executed flourishes punctuated the movements of the images on the front screen. Flakes like hail or snow, in suspension or moved capriciously by a musical wind.

Image: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

The rain turned into a storm in Fugado and Son Nocturno. A rough sea enveloped the musicians in one of the most colorful scenes of the whole show. The night was filled with lightning that visually reverberated during Yaroldy's luxurious descarga, in which the sea seemed to recede, and which drew cheers from the audience. The Maestro's virtuosity at the piano also burst forth amidst enormous waves, in a dreamlike act. 

Image: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

Afternoon in Havana brought us back to sanity. It cleared the atmosphere away from the sea, among waves of colors that accompanied the galloping rhythm of the music, marked by piano and flute in balance, the double bass and percussion creating sound environments and filling all spaces and senses. The background screen, always active, brought images of Havana at night where I thought I recognized some sections of the Malecon.

The visual accompaniment of Ritual, the piece then executed by the quartet, it was a blue fog, beautiful and enveloping. Rising clouds struggling to reach altitude. Greenish and yellowish tints over the heads of the performers who seemed to be now in the firmament.

Image: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

Whoever thought at that point that the effects had been exhausted, discovered in Samba to the south the recreation of human figures dancing in a carnival simulation and Barrock filled the hall with its musical strength. Set with multicolored cirrioles that cabriolaban to the beat of the music, the piece provided moments for improvisation and, once again, the brilliance of the performers.

Festive Contradanza burst in with background images recreating a couple's dance through a curtain that mimicked a fine, wintry rain. The music, always the protagonist, never incidental, filled the entire room, although the immersive wonder took place in the space delimited by the screens and the legs of the stage. 

Still immersed in the dreamlike atmosphere that was only interrupted by brief pauses after the applause of an enraptured audience, I did not notice the moment when Vitier took the microphone. He then thanked all those involved in the concert and announced the closing with the Ave Maria for Cuba. After The invitation to soprano Bárbara Llanes to share the stage, she asked for faith, hope and joy and sat down at the piano to unravel the beautiful notes of this prayer for the Island and the Cubans. By then, the stage lights fell from above on the musicians, now without paraphernalia. Piano, flute, minor percussion, batá and a throat vibrating for Cuba overwhelmed the audience. It was a beautiful and emotional closing. Barbara's histrionics and voice must have moved many, including myself.

Image: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

The audience's gratitude at the end of the concert was profuse. And it was reciprocated by Vitier who returned to the piano to give us the main theme of the movie Strawberry and Chocolate, once again, with a display of virtuosity.

Those of us who were lucky enough to attend these concerts took with us in our ears and retinas a unique spectacle. This review of Vitier's work is enjoyable without any visual support. His music, even in a dark room, carries in itself, and in the imagination of those of us who have been following him for a long time, innumerable visual references, images, evocations... But this show, which borders on the fantastic by applying the "immersive", takes the enjoyment of his work to other dimensions.

Thanks to the generosity of José María and Silvia we finally have some of their impressions, a posteriori. In their voices we got answers to some questions that try to unveil the mystery of these two magical nights:

-Maestro, tell us what it feels like to make music, your musicDo the musicians manage to perceive the audience's reactions during the performance, through that frontal screen?

-This experience is very different from the usual experience you have in a theater, in front of an audience. From its very conception, this show was based on the creation of images for my music and not on the creation of music for images, which is the usual thing in my career.

"Now, specifically during the concert, things happened that were novel for me. The first is being immersed -and that is the appropriate word in that visuality-, in that virtual space for the audience, but real for us, we are not completely aware of what the audience perceives. In other words, we are the immersed ones and the audience is the one who contemplates that immersion. We do not see the result, let's say, three-dimensional and as beautiful as the audience perceives it. In any case, we see the screen behind it. In no way did we have an idea of the result. We knew more or less what it was going to be, but we did not perceive it while we were playing. 

"The second issue, and this seems to me more important, is that we couldn't see the audience either. That screen, when it was presenting images between the audience and the musicians, prevented us from seeing a little bit, but not totally. We don't see the audience while we play, which creates a sense of stage solitude that I personally found comfortable. I felt good that way. In a certain sense one always feels that way, a bit lonely on stage, but in this case that loneliness was accentuated by that physical aspect, being literally immersed or enclosed between two screens. 

"Thinking a little more about this, something happened to me in terms of the perception of the audience and the feedback that one receives and that is basically expressed with the applause or with the expressions that one hears while playing. In this case the applause was very filtered. Through the videos we have seen, I was able to realize that people applauded a lot or a lot from the beginning, but I personally did not perceive that. 

Image: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

"It's a little disturbing really, because all of a sudden you say well, is this really getting through to people? How is it being received? And frankly, in effect, that big screen in front of it also does the effect of a filter from an acoustic point of view. But I don't say that as a bad thing, because being on a stage, in a full, crowded theater, and feeling a sense of solitude at the moment of playing, is a sensation that I personally find extraordinarily inspiring.

-Do you think this visual spectacle would have worked better in a smaller venue, where the audience would have been closer to the musicians and the magic of the images? Was it the technology that conditioned the choice of the Avellaneda? Or the capacity?

-Well, this is a kind of proposal in which the dimension of the space to be covered, the depth, the height, the amplitude, undoubtedly play an important role. It has been thought this way since it was premiered at the Digital Art Center, and the proposal for Cuba even more so because the stage of the National Theater is wider. I would say that the images were even better seen in Cuba precisely because of that depth, that amplitude and that dimension of the space. I think that in this case it was an element in favor of the show. I can't imagine how it would work in a smaller space. We would have to think about it in a different way.

On this topic, Silvia Rodríguez Rivera explained: 

"The decision to present it at the Avellaneda undoubtedly had a lot to do with the capacity because it was a very expensive undertaking to bring this technology here, and the objective was that it could be enjoyed by the greatest number of people. That is why we programmed two concerts. At first we had thought of the Martí Theater because we work a lot in the historical part of the city and we like that theater very much, so that was the location we initially proposed. But seeing the number of people who went to the Avellaneda on both days reaffirms to me that the Martí would not have been enough, even if it had been full.

"On the other hand, from the technological point of view, as José María said, a certain distance and amplitude is required to be able to see the immersion effect well. In that sense, we have references that there were problems for the people located in the second balcony to really perceive the immersion effect. On the second day, I observed from the first balcony that it was not the same as in the stalls. The front screen was not seen in the same way and therefore the immersion effect is lost a little. And I have been told that those who were in the second balcony did not see the screen all the time. But well [even so], I think it was the best decision to do it in the Avellaneda".

-How challenging was it to put all this technology in place in such a short period of time," I asked.

-I think so, I think Cuba is ready. Especially its public," says Silvia. We were laughing yesterday because everybody is already talking about immersion, the word "immersion" has become "hackneyed" for the Cuban public, which picks up everything at high speed. Now, technologically speaking, the French brought the screens, the servers and the projectors. Here Silvio [Rodriguez] provided much of the sound, which was, I think, one of the key things of the show. The technology used was very good and a very serious job was done to solve the deficiencies, for example, of the theater's speakers. There was also a very serious work on the lighting, with a team effort, with the intervention of many people and institutions.

"I think the result was very good. When we did it in Paris the lights were more sophisticated, but also the technicians had much more time to prepare the staging and perhaps more resources. But here I think it all worked and there was a nice lighting job. Because this, in addition to the immersive technology, requires a beautiful work of lights and the French technicians worked together with the Cubans and the result, which is what we have to value, was good. So being a first experience, having had so little time to prepare it, for me it was surprising. That they managed to do it and do it well. So I have to say that yes, Cuba is ready for this and much more. We just have to provide the opportunity and the resources, and the commitment to allocate a budget to give this kind of joy and illusion to the Cuban public".

-Did you feel in the audience's response, which gave you a standing ovation in both performances, the reward for such a great effort?

-First of all, I would like to acknowledge the decisive effort of people who were determined to make this happen, such as Carmen Mayans, and of course the French and Cuban embassies. To the people who decided to invest so that this show could be brought to Havana," Silvia continues. To the two music centers [of Popular Music and Concert], to the Institute of Music; everybody collaborated. And the Center for Digital Arts, where it all began, which even supported the expenses of the French technicians. In other words, this has been a French and Cuban effort to present this show and give this gift to the city and to Cuba. It has been really touching from the point of view of the French, because we Cubans of course want to bring nice things to our public and give some encouragement. But the French have also put a great effort in making this happen and that is a thank you that we have to highlight in each of the interviews.

Image: Paula Piñeiro Benítez

-To the above must be added the professional, I would say loving, commitment of the musicians -adds Vitier-. The musicians who accompany me, who are my regular collaborators, as is the case of Abelito, Yaroldy and Niurka González and Bárbara Llanes, work in the most dissimilar circumstances inside and outside Cuba. Suddenly this possibility arrived and we premiered the concert in Paris first and immediately the dream of doing it in Havana came up. Long before that was certain, before everything was guaranteed, before the French and the technique could arrive on time, before there was a budget, long before that, we started rehearsing. We rehearsed day after day. We did it for the concert that we didn't know yet if it was going to be possible. And we did it because we love what we do. 

"For me it is very touching that this happens with my music, although it also happens with music in general. That is, it happens to them because they have a sense of service, that the knowledge, the talent, the inspiration they may have, is not a property of the musician, it is something that is put at the service of others. And besides that, it is an immense pleasure. With people like that, how could it not be good?  

"Then there is the moving response of the public. One thing happened to us, and I can't say it's the first time, but we felt it with special intensity, and that is the need we perceived from the public -and I won't say the people, but I could also say it-, to receive this kind of illusions, joys, stimuli. This display of imagination placed at the service of positive emotions, of hopeful emotions. I really believe that this is the deep meaning it has for us and the musicians and the whole team. And the response of the audience in the theater in that sense was thrilling. It really was.

Avatar photo Alynn Benitez Castellanos Music is the fuel; the sea provides the oxygen for the internal combustion that moves my pistons. Literature and photography after music and engineering. More posts

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