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Review: At the College of Charleston, a composer lives on through music, words and images

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'Rodrigo: A Life in Music"

Paul Sanchez performs in a concert celebrating the life of composer Joaquin Rodrigo for the College of Charleston's International Piano Series. College of Charleston/Provided

We have much to gain from an immersion in the sounds, the words and the images that converge as the life of Spanish composer and pianist extraordinaire Joaquin Rodrigo. And the 30th anniversary of his death marks the pitch-perfect occasion to do so — and the College of Charleston just the right place.

This week, the college’s annual International Piano Series devoted an evening to the artist with "Rodrigo: A Life in Music." A production of the Department of Music, it folded in music, narrative and visuals to give shape to the highlights and output of this legendary 20th-century composer. 

Influenced by his Spanish origins and informed by the world of classical music, Rodrigo's innovative, expressive work spanned everything from piano sonatas to guitar concertos to choral work, and spanned a few decades, too.

Rodrigo's life in music certainly warrants the deeper dive. A native of Valencia, Spain, he lost his sight at the age of 3 after contracting diphtheria. Nonetheless, he went on to perform and create prolifically, up through the years nearing his death in 1999. 

The College of Charleston is particularly suited to tell his story by crossing the streams of artistic disciplines. Many of those involved in the production, among them musicians, vocalists, actors, writers and directors, hang their hats in the same campus building, the School of the Arts, and can readily swap skill sets on the stage of the Emmett Robinson Theatre.

In this light, the program represents the potential of such artistic cross-pollination in our community's frequent creative incubator, the college. Written by faculty members Paul Sanchez and Michael O’Brien, "Rodrigo: A Life in Music" is directed by Todd McNerney, School of the Arts associate dean and a professor of performance in the Department of Theatre and Dance.

From there, the production folds in musicians, singers and actors who contribute to a chronological exploration of the man and his music that is done in such a seamless fashion, one form easily elides into the next.

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We first meet the artist through his early works. There is the poignant, spry 1923 work "Dos Esbozos," rendered exuberant by way of Paul Sanchez on piano and Lee Chin-Siow on violin. Rodrigo then emboldens himself with the gentle then ultimately robust 1924 piano pairing, "Cinco Piezas Infantiles," with Sanchez joined by the equally impressive guest pianist Cahill Smith.

We then learn more of the man, as told through biographical narration by Joy Vandervort-Cobb and the artist's own words performed by Evan Parry as they flank the stage in alternating readings. At the same time, projected images reveal an increasingly poised Rodrigo, who moves to Paris, meets his wife, Victoria Kamhi, and starts a family.

We learn his influences, too, such as the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, by way of the lullaby "Nana" from "Siete Canciones populares Espanolas," as sung by soprano Kayleen Sanchez with thrilling, trilling, Spanish-inflected grandeur.

After a few masterful turns, such as "Preludio al gallo mananero" and the haunting "Cancion del Cucu," we see Rodrigo emerge full force with his 1939 "Aranjuez, Ma Pensee" from Concierto de Aranjuez, brandishing his signature style all the more vibrantly in his most widely known work. 

Then, the 1948 "Ausencias de Dulcinea" harnesses the marvelous vocals of Amanda Castellone, Saundra DeAthos-Meers, Kim Caldwell Powell, Sanchez and David Templeton to reveal a composer in a resplendently realized voice. The program concludes with the intricate, complex comment on his Spanish origins, "Preludio de anoranza," which was written in 1987 when the artist was well in his 80s.

By the end of the evening I felt I had well fathomed the elegance and singularity of both the musical mind and the man from Valencia — as well as the artistry that can happen when our own local talents come together on a Charleston stage.

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.

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