It took two years and two days, but it was worth waiting for.
Ana Maria Martinez’s all-Spanish language song program, conceived as a tribute to her own cultural roots (she and her mother were born in Puerto Rico; her father is Cuban) was originally scheduled by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for March 13, 2020, but… well, you know.
Luckily for all, PCMS managed to rearrange with both artists—the pianist was Craig Terry, who clearly helped conceive and mold the program. Two years has, if anything, made the enthusiastic audience even more palpably appreciative, particularly in the poignant, sentimental songs that suit Martinez especially well.
She is an artist of the first caliber, which was richly evident throughout this imaginative, substantial (nearly two hours!) program, which was (thank you!) offered without a music stand. Martinez needed occasional prompting from Terry about the order of the songs, but in every other sense her musical preparation was immaculate.
The evening’s elegant structure included a first half devoted to three groups of song: Joaquin Rodrigo’s Cuatro Madrigales Amatorios (a special favorite of mine); Joaquin Turina’s Poema en Forma de Canciones; and Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas. Befitting the status of this material as pillars of the classical song repertoire, Martinez’s used minimal gestures and offered no spoken introductions. She wore a chicly simple black satin skirt and black top, and with her stillness and focus, she could have been a figure out of Lorca.
The second half brought a new gown—gold, asymmetrical, with a va-va-voom factor—that also signaled a shift in mood. The material in this part of the program was generally less familiar and brought together different genres, including Zarzuela, and a song by tango-meister Carlos Gardel. Fittingly, here Martinez was relaxed and chatty, interacting frequently with Terry, whom she clearly adores, and with the audience.
To all of this, Martinez brings an instrument ideally suited for this repertoire—a highly individual, fascinatingly tinted voice. It’s not only that she comes to this repertoire by birthright; it’s also an ideal fit for the chiaroscuro of her soprano, which has a distinctive, almost metallic tang. The lower voice—where much of this material lies—is quite mezzo-ish, with a dark chocolate, almost throaty bite. The high notes emerge very differently, like glowing darts.
Over the course of the evening, the upper and lower registers melded more evenly, but at the beginning, Martinez made use of the contrast in Rodrigo’s ¿De donde venis amore?, where the high coloratura sounded like unexpected shafts of life, enlivening this sexy song. By and large, though Martinez successfully navigated the playful charm of some of this material—including a bang-up version of Salida de Cecilia from Gonzalo Roig’s Cecilia Valdes—it is in the more lyrical and serious material that makes the greatest impression.
This she accomplishes not so much through specific signature effects we sometimes associate with these songs. She doesn’t have the shimmer of a Pilar Lorengar, nor the easy float of Montserrat Caballe; at the other end of the scale, she doesn’t bite into the chest voice with the fierceness of Conchita Supervia—not even in Falla’s Polo, which she largely did in mixed voice.
Instead, she achieves her exquisite results through small gradations of shape and volume. She was immeasurably aided by Terry, who is an absolutely master of the often swirling, arpeggiated accompaniments here, as well as the play of rhythm (unforgettable in Falla’s Jota). Terry also arranged a final medley that brought together three numbers.
In all, a mesmerizing evening let down only slightly by the single miscalculated encore: O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi. Martinez certainly sang it well, but it was a hackneyed note in an otherwise wonderfully original program, and one which also didn’t suit her persona: she’s a woman, not a girl—Tosca, not Lauretta.
Photo: Svetlana Pasedko