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Maria Letona has found her mission as an advocate of Cuban composer Rene Touzet

By Lawrence A. Johnson
Classical Music Writer
Posted September 4 2005

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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 something!"

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 Compositions.

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 fundamental."

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 them exactly."

Stressful recording

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 86.

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 stressful."

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.

Parental push

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 player.

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 same instrument!'"

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.'"

Her family 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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