When the daughter of your musical hero contacts you with an idea, you are inclined to listen.
“It’s the 20th anniversary of my dad’s death coming up next year,” wrote Cecilia Rodrigo in an email to Paul Sanchez, director of piano studies at the College of Charleston. “Let’s do something.”
Sanchez had met Cecilia in 2001. He was about to graduate from high school and he was enamored with the music of Joaquin Rodrigo, an underappreciated Spanish composer whose works, grounded in the classical style yet full of vernacular gestures and catchy riffs, were all the more astounding due to the fact that Rodrigo was blind.
Sanchez was learning Rodrigo’s piano music and soon performed some of it at a centennial celebration of the composer’s birth in Minnesota. Cecilia was there.
A few years later, Sanchez was in Barcelona, Spain, on a Fulbright Scholar Program, studying with the great Alicia de Larocha and focusing on Rodrigo’s music. While there, he learned the difficult piano concerto, which Rodrigo began to write during the Spanish Civil War and finished during World War II.
So when Cecilia contacted Sanchez about marking the 20th anniversary of her father’s death, Sanchez was, shall we say, predisposed.
But how best to proceed? With a standard recital? No. Something unique was needed.
So Sanchez reached out to his colleague, musicologist Michael O’Brien, whose expertise is Latin American music (close enough, Sanchez figured), and who tends to be open-minded about special projects.
O’Brien, in turn, helped round up other College of Charleston collaborators: theater producer Todd McNerney; actors Evan Perry and Joy Vandervort-Cobb; pianist Cahill Smith; violinist Lee-Chin Siow; and singers David Templeton, Saundra DeAthos-Meers, Kayleen Sanchez, Amanda Castellone and Kim Powell.
The concert, part of the college’s International Piano Series, is set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29, at the Emmett Robinson Theatre, 54 St. Philip St.
The performance will feature a dramatic narration, video of Rodrigo (including a glimpse of how he wrote music using a braille machine or dictating to a copyist), and a program that includes “Dos Esbozoz” for violin and piano, “Cinco piezas infantiles” for double piano, and “Alsencias de Dulcinea” for five voices and piano.
Rodrigo (1901-99), a virtuoso pianist, was born in 1901 in Sagunto, Spain, near Valencia. As a toddler, he contracted diphtheria and lost his sight. At 8, he started learning piano and violin. At 16, he tackled harmony and composition, writing in Braille. He worked with teachers in Spain and France.
By his 40s, he had established his reputation as a composer and embraced a career as a professor with an appointment at Complutense University of Madrid.
In 1939, he wrote what would become his most famous work, "Concierto de Aranjuez" (for guitar and orchestra). The middle movement was adapted by Gil Evans for Miles Davis' 1960 album "Sketches of Spain."
O’Brien said this multifaceted concert provided a good opportunity to examine Rodrigo’s cultural significance and musical influence. It’s also a chance to admire Rodrigo’s compositional mastery and sharp musical mind.
“He went blind when he was 3, so everything he knows about music and notation comes about after that point,” O’Brien said. It takes an extraordinary memory — and extraordinary patience — to create an accurate score based on music heard in one’s head, he added.
Spanish composers of the 20th century, like Latin American composers, were long considered just outside the classical music canon, which generally celebrates the Germanic tradition, O’Brien said. These were composers who often found ways to combine classical traditions with indigenous and folk music, creating hybrid styles. They were considered exotic outsiders by composers such as Brahms, Dvorak, Ravel and Liszt, who wrote music in the Spanish or gypsy style.
But in the last 20 to 30 years, that view has been changing, O’Brien noted. The music of Rodrigo and others increasingly has been programmed, and composers such as Manuel De Falla, Isaac Albaniz, Enrique Granados, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera now are more welcome than ever in concert halls around the world, though some argue that bias in favor of the Germanic tradition remains strong.
It remains important to introduce audiences to the works of such composers, and this Rodrigo concert provides a good opportunity to examine the repertoire, question the classical music canon and perhaps widen musical definitions, O’Brien said.
“You can do things that are in some ways didactic and get the audience to think about these big questions, but that are also entertaining,” he said. “It is biography, but it’s not just biography. ... How do we make the stage a place that’s full of experiences welcoming to a wider group of people?”
When Sanchez was in school studying music history, his textbook might have included Rodrigo’s name, but there was no discussion of his work, the young pianist recalled. For an avid fan of Rodrigo’s music, this was frustrating. So early on, he set himself a goal.
“This music has to be played,” he said.