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Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba appeared in recital at UNC's Memorial Hall, and all the stars conspired in his favor, except for an important competing game of basketball for the UNC Chapel Hill team. Rubalcaba was present both as part of the Carolina Performing Arts’ 2007-2008 jazz series, and as part of the conference "Transcending Borders: Latin American and Latina/o Music in North Carolina and the United States," hosted by Professor David Garcia. I was surprised, but delighted upon arriving, to see only a grand piano on the stage, since most of his long discography is with small ensembles — trios, quartets — and a jazz solo recital is a rare treat.
Memorial Hall was well-filled (though I wondered what attraction it would take for it to be SRO), and Rubalcaba began a program which must have baffled a good portion of the audience, since he seemed intent on confounding expectations. What does one expect of a Cuban pianist at a festival of Latino music? References to dance, to salsa, to son? the repetitive rhythms of montuno? percussive sounds? swing? Well, there was to be little or none of that. Rubalcaba began with a pensive moment of ringing open dissonances, fourths and fifths, major seconds, no evident melody, no pulse, then moved into a more songlike moment, more lyrical, slow, with still no regular pulse, the dynamics almost all at mp, p, pp, ppp, with the pianist eliciting a lovely sound from his Steinway (kudos to the technician — I have rarely heard such a beautifully in-tune piano at a jazz performance). Suddenly, the song was over, and there was applause.
Rubalcaba began another song, though still nothing recognizable as a standard or a song form, with sophisticated harmonies unique to his own vocabulary, unresolved dissonances even within a jazz context. Now there was more motion, but motion that changed its character every 10 seconds. More applause.
The next musical moment was more piano, and with melodic fragments a little closer to a jazz standard, though still not identifiable, except perhaps to a more perceptive ear than mine. The fourth song was finally reminiscent of a traditional style, recalling Gershwin or Porter, a little more up tempo, a little more pulse, with finally a quote from a Sousa march. Rubalcaba continued with a more rhythmic section, with a basso ostinato, culminating in unison runs between the hands spiraling upwards. The audience demonstrated its contempt for the arts here by leaving in noticeable numbers, perhaps a half-hour into the performance.
Rubalcaba responded with a little simple sad song, followed by the only standard of the evening. More philistines left.
The most extended improvisation of the evening followed, based on a rocking abstract two-note ostinato, perhaps the only quasi-Jarrettesque moment of the concert. I noted floating chords, then clouds of runs, leading to an absolutely exquisite pianissimo cadence at the very top of the keyboard.
Long applause, and a Debussyan moment leading to another standard. Finally, Rubalcaba played something a little older, something with a somewhat more tropical sound, reminiscent of the social dances of the early twentieth century, with an amazingly light touch, closing with high fluttering trills. And the program was suddenly over. Half the audience rushed for the exits, but the remaining half was treated to a few more pensive moments of encore from the master.
This was certainly one of the top programs of the season, whether classical or jazz, and possibly THE program; an exceptional performer, an exceptional creative artist at the very top of his game. An unforgettable moment, one that if captured on CD, you would play over and over, to absorb every nuance.It was that good.