Time appears to standstill at the Pablo Casals Symphony Hall when you listen to the crystalline voice of Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez over the orchestra’s opening chords of The Jewel Song of the Faust opera by French composer Charles Gounod.
The charisma of Ana Maria, who has shared lead with megastars like Andrea Boccelli and Placido Domingo; the commanding figure of conductor Maximiano Valdes together with the emotive and precise execution by the musicians formed the perfect ambiance for the 60th anniversary Gala Concert of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra.
The 60-year commemoration of Puerto Rico’s most significant music ensemble, founded by legendary cellist Pablo Casals in 1958, took place in November 2018 in the Hall that shares his name at the Luis A. Ferre Performing Arts Center in Santurce – the place the orchestra has called home for the past 10 years.
The Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra keeps a tight schedule that consist of a 10-month season (August – May) with weekly concerts at the Pablo Casals Symphony Hall as well as the prestigious Casals Festival and special community presentations.
According to Valdes, who is responsible for polishing the sound and broadening the orchestra’s repertoire for the past decade, “Puerto Rico should feel proud of its ensemble.”
“They are an extremely generous orchestra that gives it their all when they perform,” said Valdes, who has led the orchestras of Principality of Asturias and in Buffalo. “I feel the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra is highly ranked in the Americas, and without a doubt, ranks as the best in the Caribbean and one of the best in Latin America.”
And who would know better than Valdes who has also conducted main orchestras in Europe
such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the France National Symphony.
Besides musical excellence, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra stands out for their unusual ability to play an ample repertoire that transcends the classical works of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.
Carlos Ruiz, executive director of the Musical Arts Corporation, says Puerto Rican musicians are among the most versatile at a global level and the orchestra executes classical music brilliantly but at the same time can perform with artists that play jazz, pop and Puerto Rican folk music.
“We have performed concerts with salsa singer Gilberto Santarrosa, Caribbean jazz composer William Cepeda, classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, celebrated composer and conductor Krysztof Penderecki, and with reggaeton sensation Daddy Yankee at the Latin American Music Awards in Los Angeles,” Ruiz added.
From Beethoven to Broadway and Star Wars
One of the biggest challenges of the orchestra is to draw large crowds during its concert season in Puerto Rico, which residents are more prone to listen to popular music.
“When we (symphonic orchestra) performed the Symphonie Fantastique Berlioz and the sound echoes throughout the Hall, it’s a unique experience that enters one’s pores where you have to say wow, how incredible!” said Velazquez. “And when the people feel it, they may return another day and listen to a symphony by Mahler or Beethoven, and then they realize there is a lot of cliché in the notion that classical music is not entertaining; it’s like pop music, there are some good and enjoyable songs and others not so much.”
No one doubts that the inclusion of contemporary cinematic and theatrical music as well as the variation of popular genre helps attract a larger and more diverse crowd to the symphony hall.
With much success, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra presented the music of John Williams Star Wars saga in 2015 and 2017 and Disney hits from Aladdin and Pocahontas.
This 2018-2019 season is absolutely no exception, which began with the music of Leonard Bernstein including hits from acclaimed films and/or plays On The Waterfront, and West Side Story as well as Walt Disney: A Decade In Concert,” Lord of the Rings, and a selection of favorite TV shows and Movies (scheduled for April 6) and a concert of Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits set for June 8.
It’s definitely all about the music.
Violinist Jose Daniel de Jesus remembers an experience that moved him during a past performance of a Disney music concert.
“The last song we performed was Disney’s It’s a Small World and I got emotional when I witnessed a 16 year old teen cry while I was playing and I could just imagine he was remembering something from his past possibly when he visited a Disney park as a child with his parents or maybe with a grandparent who passed away,” De Jesus said. “It just moved me to think that the orchestra and its music could transport a person to remember past experiences or simply unforgettable moments. That is the true power of music.”