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March 05, 2006

Rene Touzet: From mambos to sonatas


Composers need their advocates, someone to champion their music to a world that hasn't yet inclined an ear.

Maria Letona, a Salvadoran-American pianist now teaching at Barry University in Miami Shores, has found that composer in Rene Touzet (1916-2003), a Cuban composer who spent much of his musical life leading mambo and cha-cha bands on the U.S. West Coast during the 1950s and 1960s.

Retiring to Little Havana in 1972, Touzet decided to devote his compositional energies to piano works, and wrote about 100 of them before his death. Letona met the composer in 1999 while doing doctoral work at the University of Miami. In her notes to a disc she released late last year of Touzet's music, she writes that she "immediately felt a fondness and understanding of his music” as she played through the manuscript of the Sonata Romántica, recorded here.

"In most of his piano works, Touzet successfully blends Cuban folk music and jazz with art or classical music. In that sense, he follows in the tradition of composers such as George Gershwin and Aaron Copland in the United States, Alberto Ginastera in Argentina, Heitor Villa-Lobos in Brazil and Enrique Granados and Isaac Albeniz in Spain . . . ”

Letona believes so strongly in this music that she spent $5,000 of her own cash to record a Touzet disc and is distributing it herself (you can get it by going to

Letona sent me the disc last year, but I didn't get a chance to listen carefully to it until recently. The record contains 14 pieces, most of them character or genre works such as eight of the composer's Danzas Cubanas, three caprichos and a nocturno. There's also that three-movement sonata I mentioned earlier and a Fantasia española.

On the whole, I found this to be an attractive and diverting recital. Touzet's background as a popular musician shows throughout: All of these pieces essentially are in song form. He has a gift for elegant, memorable melodies, and he is deft at marrying classical styles to commercial and folk dance rhythms. He tends to structure his pieces with the same dramatic arc, ending in big chords and plenty of romantic wash.

Sometimes, the effect is pure salon (Apasionada), but at others, all those elements — jazz, Latin dance, 19th-century pianism, popular song — coalesce into something else. The slow movement of the sonata, for instance, begins with a melody very close to Schumann, and he takes it through some tasteful territory after that. Had he written more music along these lines, he might have developed in some deeper directions.

As it is, the composer he most reminds me of is a jazzier Louis Moreau Gottschalk, although from a more authentic native vantage point than Gottschalk the tourist. He shares with his older contemporary a straightforwardness about presenting Latin American folk styles in a traditional piano format, and then decorating his tunes with Lisztian filigree.

But there is still plenty of fresh, interesting music here. Touzet wasn't aiming for the empyrean, but the modest landscape he did sketch is worth visiting. An ambitious pianist looking for some unusual repertoire to spice up a recital might want to explore some of the better pieces here for encore purposes: Cascabel, a charming evocation of carnival bells; La Trece, a clever little dance with a tricky left-hand part, interesting harmonies, and a very brief 1940s pop middle section (I think this is the piece we see in the background of the Web site home page); Siempre en Clave, with its ascending fifths and constant syncopations. And the Sonata Romantica has at some moments a restrained classicism that works very well with Touzet's songwriterly orientation.

Letona plays this music with power, passion and impressive technique. None of the dance rhythms hold any terrors for her, and she makes a persuasive argument for Touzet as a writer of tasty, sauve miniatures that enterprising players and listeners could do well to investigate.

Posted by Greg Stepanich at 01:12 AM | Comments (0)

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