Letona has found her mission as an advocate of Cuban composer
By Lawrence A.
September 4 2005
By the time she was in
her teens, Letona had embarked on her own revolutionary
insurgency. "My dad was way too strict for me and I started
rebelling," she says. "By this time I hated the piano and I
At the age of 17, Letona ran away
from home and joined a popular local Latin jazz band. "They
asked, `Do you play salsa?'" and I said, "Yeah!' I knew zero.
I was so square, all I knew was Beethoven."
performed with the band for two years throughout the New
Orleans area, frequently as a warm-up for Celia Cruz. Soon her
gypsy existence led her to Boston, where her older sister
lived. And Letona became, in her words, "a normal person,"
working temp and secretarial jobs. Yet gradually she began to
feel the pull of her early classical training. She bought an
old upright and resumed playing again.
A piano teacher
she found in the yellow pages encouraged her to get a
bachelor's degree in music. Told that the best place in Boston
was the New England Conservatory of Music, Letona became
obsessed with gaining entrance to the prestigious
"When I went into the building and heard all
these pianos, violins, and cellos warming up I thought, `What
the hell am I doing here? I'm 25 years old and I don't know
how to play piano.' My letters of recommendation were from my
boss: `Maria is an excellent receptionist.' I'm a
The fortune cookie
to her own amazement, Letona thrived at the conservatory,
earning a reputation as a relentless performer and dedicated
student. She also became very involved in contemporary music,
performing works of John Cage and György Ligeti under the
After getting her bachelor's and
master's degrees, Letona was undecided about her next move
until dining with friends at a Chinese restaurant. She opened
a fortune cookie that said, "You are headed to the land of
palm trees and sunshine." She told herself, "That's it! That's
my destiny. I'm going to Florida!"
"She's got a very
vivacious and positive personality," said Thomas Sleeper, one
of her mentors at the University of Miami Frost School of
Music, who wrote his piano work The Cursive Images for
her. "She plays with a lot of energy and verve. ... She really
makes things sparkle."
In addition to getting her
doctorate at UM, Letona met her husband in Miami, and now has
two children. Having achieved a balance in her personal life,
she feels her varied experiences make her uniquely suited to
her role as Touzet's advocate, bridging the jazz and classical
worlds just as he did. She will present a recital at Barry on
Nov. 5, which will include works of Touzet.
has a swing and Mozart has a swing," says Letona. "I feel it
really helps if you experience the popular music side. You
know, teachers always say, `Sing, make the piano sing!' But I
also always tell my students, `Make the piano
Lawrence A. Johnson can be reached at
email@example.com or 954-356-4708.
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