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Friday, March 23 News

Sound Surfing: Havana-based ensemble shares its musical heritage

For the next concert in its Music & Arts series, Christ & Holy Trinity Church opens its doors to an international ensemble rarely heard in this country for a performance of music and dance — complete with period costumes — that is equally as rare as it is distinctive. The group, Ars Longa, which specializes in early music originating from Cuba and its surrounding regions, makes its Connecticut debut at Christ & Holy Trinity Church in Westport at 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 3.

Based in Havana, Cuba, Ars Longa was co-founded by Teresa Paz and Aland López in 1994 and is one of the only ensembles of its kind in the world, studying and interpreting music from the Middle Ages to the Baroque period with a special focus on Cuba’s early musical heritage. Speaking through an interpreter, Teresa Paz discussed the group, its music and its tour, during a recent email interview.

“I was a conducting major at the conservatory in Havana and naturally worked with early music,” said Paz, explaining how Ars Longa was formed. “My singing voice was good for that repertoire, so I was naturally drawn to it. I met my husband Aland there. As a guitarist, he was also doing a lot of early music and transcribing it for the modern guitar. I traveled to Europe with the Exaudi choir and became aware of the music of Jordi Savall and the historically informed performance style, which was then unknown in Cuba. Aland and I formed a duo, which grew organically as we added new instruments and explored new repertoires.”

Ars Longa has given concerts and participated in international festivals in Spain, Italy, France, Sweden, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Venezuela, Mexico, and Ecuador. It also hosts the annual international Esteban Salas Early Music Festival in Havana and has released 10 CDs, many of which have won prizes and awards in Europe.

“We work mostly on music from the 16th to the early 19th centuries,” explained Paz, who holds a master’s degree in Spanish music from the University of Valladolid in Spain. “We know that there was musical activity in Cuba from the start of colonial times, through chronicles and other documents, but no music from before the late 1700s has survived. This program features music by Esteban Salas, whose compositions are the oldest surviving music written in Cuba. We have also performed the music of Salas' contemporary Cayetano Pagueras.”

Paz noted that the repertoire the ensemble focuses on plays an important role in keeping Cuba’s musical heritage alive. “We filled a space that was waiting for someone, because nobody approached early music with a historically aware lens before us,” she said. “Our work generated awareness of the repertoire and generated the construction and restoration of instruments, publications, like the works of Salas, and recordings of music that had been forgotten.”

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Throughout the band’s existence, about 50 musicians have been part of Ars Longa, according to Paz. “There are about 20 musicians on the roster at this time,” she said, “and the groups that perform vary according to the needs of the repertoire. Many of our alumni, who left Cuba to continue their studies abroad, now play with the leading early music ensembles in Europe and elsewhere.”

This visit to Westport will mark Ars Longa’s second time touring the U.S. “The reception has been extremely warm. People appreciate knowing this repertoire and knowing that there are musicians that perform it, who are on this side of the ocean,” she said.

The current touring ensemble consists of 12 musicians, with five singers and seven instrumentalists who play violins and baroque cello, oboes, harp, and guitar. “The first half of the concert is Christmas music by Esteban Salas, which is the earliest music written in Cuba that has reached us,” explained Paz of Westport’s program. “The second half is a panorama of baroque music from other parts of Latin America, including music from the Jesuit missions of Bolivia and baroque popular music from Peru.”

The performance will also include a festive array of costumes and dance. “Dance is always part of our shows,” said Paz. “We start with basic Baroque dance movements and re-elaborate them in collaboration with choreographers such as Ana Yepess and others. Our goal has always been to not only play with the exact intonation, articulation, and intention, but also to deliver a message to our audience through movement, costumes, and textual interpretation.”

Ars Longa’s stability over the decades has been a combination of individual effort and cultural support. “There has been a lot of personal effort. And we have also received the invaluable support of the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana. This organization is tasked with preserving and restoring the city's patrimony, from its buildings to its non-material riches such as music and the arts. We have also started academies, which insure that there is always a crop of new talented musicians who are ready to join the ensemble when people leave.”

Tickets are $45 for preferred seats, $35 for adult general admission, and $10 general admission for children under 18. A post-concert Cuban-themed reception is also on the program. The church is located at the corner of Church Lane and Myrtle Avenue in downtown Westport. Visit www.chtwestport.org for more information.

Mike Horyczun’s Sound Surfing column appears every Saturday in The Norwalk Hour. Mike can be reached at news2mh@gmail.com.