Letona has found her mission as an advocate of Cuban composer
By Lawrence A.
September 4 2005
The composer Rene Touzet is not one most classical
aficionados think of when pondering great piano music of the
20th century. That is a state of affairs that Maria Letona is
determined to change.
Now an adjunct piano professor at
Barry University, Letona discovered Touzet while searching for
a doctoral thesis topic at the University of Miami. Edgy,
contemporary music had lost its attraction for her. "I wanted
something that I could feel passionate about," recalls Letona,
who speaks in rapid-fire italics and exclamation marks as she
promotes her cause. "I wanted to become the expert on
She was stuck until a colleague played a
recording for her of Touzet's Sonata romantica.
The appeal was immediate. "It was very pianistic and
substantial and very tonal" -- a relief after all the
hardcore modernism she encountered at the New England
Conservatory of Music.
Like his more famous compatriot
Ernesto Lecuona, Touzet was celebrated for his populist music
rather than his serious concert works. Touzet achieved success
as a pianist, songwriter and bandleader in the 1940s and
1950s, when the popularity of Latin dance music was at its
height. Both Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra recorded his hit
No Te Importe Saber, Sinatra in translation as Let
Me Love You Tonight.
Touzet emigrated from his
native Cuba to the United States in the 1950s, capitalizing on
the mambo and cha-cha crazes with a long-running string of
engagements at West Coast clubs. He retired and moved to
Miami's Little Havana in 1972.
Letona's friend, Rudy
Brito, took her to meet the tall, courtly composer in 1999.
Touzet was looking for a pianist to perform his Sonata
romantica at a concert in Little Havana; Letona was
enthusiastic about the prospect. While preparing for the
event, she became fired with zeal for Touzet's Cuban Dances
and other piano works, striking up a close friendship with
the elderly composer.
"I was immediately struck by his
genuine personality, his intelligence, his sense of humor and
his love for the piano," wrote Letona in the liner notes to
her CD, Rene Touzet: Classical Music
Touzet's classical piano output
consists of more 100 works, nearly all unknown. In Letona's
view, Touzet's music is singular in its fusion of classical,
jazz and Cuban folk music. "His harmonies are more complex
than those of Lecuona," says Letona, adding, "Because of the
Cuban folk influence, the rhythm is
Despite its surface simplicity and light
melancholy, it's enormously tricky to interpret correctly,
Letona says. "His music is very difficult -- really
difficult, especially the rhythms. In these dances there's a
lot of syncopation and it takes you forever to really nail
Letona had graduated in May of 2003
and was planning her Touzet album when the composer died
suddenly on June 15, 2003, at the age of
Devastated, she began to have second thoughts about
her mission to promote his music. Eventually she rose out of
her despondency. "I decided I have to be relentless about
this," Letona says with characteristic intensity. "You can be
in the practice room forever but if you don't play this music
in front of people it's not going to make an impact." She
presented an all-Touzet recital at Barry University's chapel
that fall and forged ahead with the CD, borrowing $5,000 from
her father to pay for it.
She made the recording on a
Sunday afternoon at the home of her friend and university
colleague, pianist Adam Aleksander, an experience she
describes as "nerve-wracking."
"I only had four hours,"
she recalls. "There were birds, a parrot on the balcony, car
alarms, kids playing outside. We had to put the AC off because
of the noise and I was sweating. It was very
While Letona is ambivalent about some of
her playing, she feels she accomplished what she set out to
do. "I told my husband, `This is not about me. I just want to
play well enough to communicate his music and I think I did
the job.'" The recording is available at her own Web site,
www.renetouzet.com, and the Naxos label has expressed an
interest in picking up the disc.
Slender and diminutive, with her
nut-brown hair pulled back, the 43-year-old Letona doesn't
look much older than her students at Barry, despite childhood
hardship and several hard-drinking years as an itinerant salsa
Born in San Salvador in 1962, Letona and her
two sisters (all named Maria) were taught piano by their
grandfather at home, closely supervised by their father. "He
was a military guy and he would say, `I don't want anyone
complaining! Everybody's Maria and everyone will learn the
Her father's exacting discipline
eventually made lessons and practicing a chore, especially
after the discovery that she had perfect pitch. "He was
obsessed, OK? He would ask the mailman, `Can you come in and
hear my daughters play the piano?' And I was like, `I don't
know; I don't think I like this anymore.'"
became embroiled in El Salvador's civil war in the 1970s after
two cousins joined the leftist guerillas. When they became
targeted by the government, her father brought the family to
the United States.
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