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Reportages Niurka Gonzalez. Photo: Alex Hoerner. Niurka Gonzalez. Photo: Alex Hoerner.

Niurka González: a transit towards beauty

Two months have passed, and the onslaught of the tornado that shook Havana is still visible due to the absence of a cross on the church on the road that Eliseo Diego transformed into a book. It is the concert number 100 of the Interminable Tour of Silvio Rodríguez and the birthday of Santiago Feliú. The crowd increases with the sunset. The commemoration, between festive and nostalgic, has the Rumbatá group as a prelude. Cubans and foreigners enjoy folklore, some dance with the natural ease of a catchy rhythm, others, infected with joy, wait anxiously.

Already in what is going to be the central part of the concert, the accompanying musicians come on stage. Silvio comes behind. He arrives at his post. Headphones are put on for reference. He takes the guitar and starts his song; He is accompanied by a choir of voices scattered throughout the park. 

To the right of the poet, a flute plays. The safe and delicate movement of its interpreter makes freedom a harmonious color and the fleeting notes privilege the expectant ear that, at times, grasps a mace, attends a birth or draws with oil the escape of a love. Niurka González Núñez is in charge of angelizing finals.

She is a 44-year-old from Havana who enjoys the sound of music when it is played for the first time. “This act has great magic, it is like witnessing the first steps of a creature”. Daughter of a Revolutionary Armed Forces artilleryman and a doctor specializing in Biochemistry, at first glance music did not seem to be an option for which she would opt. Although he doesn't think much about his past and sometimes thinks he has forgotten when innocence translates into smiles, he had a happy childhood. "The time will come when the rhythm of life allows me to assume a more reflective attitude and begin to dust off memories."

At the age of seven, she wants to be a singer and joins the musical group directed by María Álvarez Ríos: Meñique, which "performed every Saturday at a rock in Lenin Park, at the Amelia Peláez house." As part of the ensemble, he records musical education television programs and travels to the Sierra Maestra to sing to the members of the “Plan Montaña”. The director appreciates the girl's potential and recommends that her mother present her to the entrance exams at the “Manuel Saumell” Elementary School of Music. They attend the selection process with low expectations. To the surprise of both, Niurka gets a place at the new school. First options: flute and guitar. She decides to change the guitar for the clarinet convinced by a teacher and she feels captivated by this instrument. Already as a student, he did not get enough points to study the flute specialty, which was his greatest aspiration.

In second year her clarinet is stolen, a fact that depresses her and puts her in a difficult situation regarding her studies. Encouraged by a flute teacher, she receives classes on the instrument that she failed to pass on admission. He insists on continuing as a flutist, participates in the Amadeo Roldán contest and obtains the first prize. Exceptionally, she is authorized to take a double major and graduates in both instruments. “In that first stage, since I didn't have a flute, I took advantage of when the regular school students were busy in other classes or playing, I asked them for their instrument and practiced a little. That lasted until teacher Luisa Hernández lent me her flute and I studied with her until I could get my own”. Although along the way, the clarinet has remained more to the saga, it has not completely given up on it. "I've recorded my little things but I don't study it with the rigor that I work the flute, so to feel like a clarinetist again, I have to study much more".

At the age of 16, she meets Leo Brouwer, who invites her to play with the National Symphony Orchestra and under his direction she debuts as a soloist. That relationship is for Niurka, fundamental professionally and personally. Musical collaborations and shared experiences nuance a friendship of which she is proud.

Niurka González with Leo Brouwer. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Niurka González with Leo Brouwer. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

Three years later he obtained a scholarship at the Paris Conservatory to continue his flute studies. At the French academy, he builds a new way of playing and interpreting safely so as not to make mistakes. “The French have managed to develop a special sonority; as a school, they are very clear about how to play the flute and they have been able to systematize the teaching”. Using what she learned in the Parisian school through creative freedom, thinking and acting as a musician, beyond being a flutist, was for her a decisive moment when it came to taking risks. Time has passed since his residence in France, but he admits that he has made discoveries from his daily work in aspects of technique and sound. 

He prefers to play works with which he identifies by understanding their essence. Although also, as part of the repertoire to perform, there may be others with which you do not feel the same connection. “Sometimes I have to interpret some works with which I don't identify so much; when the case arises, I try to do it in the best possible way”. As a performer and listener, he enjoys well-thought-out music, “it doesn't matter if it's baroque, classical, romantic, 20th or 21st century”.

Becoming a source of inspiration for compositions designed specifically for her is one of her greatest joys. “Historically, in music there is a close relationship between composers and performers, a kind of feedback. Every time a new work for flute is created, our musical heritage is enriched”. Precisely in the collaborative relationship, it is where he has been able to appreciate the musical work of young people and the necessary creative continuity. “They should not be limited under any circumstances. I wish that your particular environment and reality provide you with the conditions to create. Young people must be sincere and consistent with themselves, do what they want, as long as they believe in it”. 

Surface, by composer Daniel Toledo Guillén, is one of the works performed by Niurka's flute. “Anything written on the sheet music is of utmost importance to her. There is no vulgar virtuosity in his execution, but an extraordinary musicality in his ability to understand every detail of the composition. He faces every moment of the piece, whether technically easy or not, with the same attitude. This is where the difference lies between a great musician and a person who simply plays the music. She is a performer focused more on defending the work than on exhibiting her range of technical possibilities”, Daniel tells about Niurka.

His musical career has not been left alone in the panorama of concerts and presentations; She also works as a professor at the Higher Institute of Art. Although it is difficult to establish scales in the artistic world, Niurka considers her pedagogical work as a tangible contribution. Teaching is a facet that he enjoys and feels as an enriching creative process: “the flute class becomes mutual learning”, confess. The experience, ability and personal sensitivity, together with the accumulated knowledge, converge in the moments of giving lessons. In the practice of a craft of light, the solutions or ways of doing things are personal for each student, whom Niurka appreciates as unique beings. 

“The need to explain how to achieve a certain result forces you to verbalize processes that are sometimes carried out intuitively and even mechanically, speaking in more technical terms. It is turning the creative act into a research, autoethnographic process”. 

Yamila Delgado, also a flutist and teacher, Niurka's student for a brief period, writes about her: “At that time Niurka was with the little girl, she had a lot of work and she was also starting to teach. We were four students. All teachers when we start, we suffer from many things. But then she became a full professor and has done a great pedagogical job with students from all over Cuba, developing a very satisfactory method of face-to-face classes, with excellent results. I have tried to get all those who were my students at the “Alejandro García Caturla” elementary level Conservatory to study with her later in the following levels. He has never closed the door even to the humblest peasant. I remember that he lent his flute to one of his graduating students, he did not allow him to do a recital with a deteriorated instrument. His international experience has contributed a lot to higher level teaching in Cuba in the last 10 years, oxygenating the repertoire of the instrument. Niurka is a rigorous and inspiring teacher, very sweet, with great human values. I met her 15 years ago. I can assure you that it has become the reference of the Cuban classical flute. All the young flutists love her as a teacher, her movements and ways of interpreting are reflected in her students. It is very nice, because they can be identified very easily by those of us who know it well”.

Learning to control your nerves to enjoy the moment of the concert has been one of Niurka's greatest challenges. It is a process that has evolved in stages. When she was a student, she channeled the tension before appearing on stage with dissimilar rituals: her grandmother's earrings, a specific scarf, a linden tea, customs that were becoming more frequent, with new accessories to feel relaxed. "Until one day I left the earrings, there was no lime...and I said to myself: you have to play whatever". Though She has left behind superstitions, she continues with a ritual that she defines as essential: study her presentation and go well prepared.

His ideal method to go out on stage without pressure would be: “Depending on the time of the concert, take a walk or some exercise routine. Have at least an hour to do a good warm-up with the flute, then have time to get ready and leave calmly to arrive at the venue a little earlier”. 

But many times the everyday is imposed with other tasks: taking her daughter to school, classes, rehearsals of other concerts where she will participate, cooking, organizing the house, going out in search of something necessary. So he applies formulas to ensure that when he arrives at the concert no one notices how hectic his day could have been: “In short, you have to reconcile the ideal with reality”.

She has inevitably had to deal with difficult circumstances during various performances, intertwined with sad and even meteorological events: the death of one of her pets, or the anguish over the state of his instruments after a concert under a downpour on the steps of the University of Havana. "Once in a stadium in Montevideo with Silvio there was a cold wind and I ended up with frozen hands because the flute was ice."

Aware that her work scenario would not change, she decides to become a mother and face the challenge of combining a career as a musician with motherhood at the age of 25: “The younger you would be, the more energy and strength you would have. The truth is that I'm not complaining. Although you have to be a juggler to align everything that is required to be a mother, head of a house, musician, wife, daughter, teacher… I couldn't even say how I have been able to do it”. 

But for Niurka, the great work is to make the person brought into the world become a good human being: "As, by the way, she is," she says proudly of her daughter Malva. Despite avoiding experiential hurricanes, she enjoys and feels lucky with her present.

Although he has participated as a jury in national and international competitions, he affirms, as a matter of principle, that he does not believe in competitions, much less where art is involved. However, he understands the existence of these competitions and understands their usefulness in the current scenario, listing the opportunities he sees for young people to make themselves known thanks to “rigorous study, assembly of new repertoires, musical creations composed expressly for the competitions. Today it is almost impossible to do without them, absolutely everything is by competition: admission to conservatories, competitions for orchestras, etc. They have become part of the musical career, which I personally prefer to call the 'musical path'”. 

When he has to be a jury, he tries to make the result of the competition positive and stimulating for those who participate. Execution skills are -for her- the least complex to establish ratings. The most difficult thing is, without a doubt, the subjectivity based on the sensitivity and the personal criteria of each jury about who can move or present interpretative proposals that meet expectations. 

“I have also been lucky enough to share juries with colleagues, great flutists, very competent, who have made the experience very enjoyable; although for me the taste is never completely sweet because we are all human and we are not owners of the truth, much less when it comes to art”.

In September 2010, together with Silvio, Trovarroco and other invited musicians, he began the Interminable Tour: concerts in Havana and Cuban neighborhoods. “It was in the La Corbata neighborhood. Silvio had just returned from a successful tour of the United States and a few days after arriving we did the concert, which was very emotionally charged”. Experience that considers itself foundational: "A kind of extension of what we experienced on the prison tour, which emotionally was very strong for everyone." 

Niurka does not distinguish between the public, nor does she ever underestimate it; For her, the neighborhood and the concert hall only differ in the circumstance of the presentation: the silence of the room where her own breathing can be perceptible and the neighborhood where there are other sounds unrelated to music that, however, she takes advantage of to explore nuances, which also influence the perception of what is transmitted. “Except for details like these, everything else is the same”. Sharing experiences, ideas and feelings called art with the public that attends a room to enjoy music, or that music knocks on doors in the neighborhoods where the stage has been set up, generates the same commitment for her. He trusts the human being, beyond his "cultural level". "In the most unexpected place live sensitivity and spirituality".

I ask him to choose three significant moments in his career and he answers me with a musical chronology: “When I met Leo Brouwer and made my debut with the National Symphony Orchestra; my meeting in Barcelona with Alan Marion in 1994, who gave me a letter of recommendation to study in France and later became my teacher in Paris...”. He prefers to reserve the third moment. "I am optimistic and I want to believe that wonderful experiences still await me." 

His work pace does not slow down, even with this complex present for everyone; only the live presentations have been interrupted, but on social networks the space that the pandemic truncated is gaining. Accompanied by her daughter, along with other musicians or alone, she shares presentations with the public on-line, projects completed and in progress. Niurka has not stopped making the sound of the flute a transit towards beauty.  

Escobar Trail Escobar Trail Industrial engineer and writer. Talkative by nature. More posts

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