Donald Neale | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Donald Neale

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DONALD NEALE

The most significant composer to emerge from Cuba, Ernesto Lecuona left behind an astonishing legacy when he died in 1963. But of his 400 songs, 170 solos for piano, 80 theatrical works, and 30 orchestral pieces, by a conservative count, only a handful are still regularly performed outside his country. Conservatory trained, he learned to improvise during early stints in honky-tonks and movie palaces, developing the quicksilver mood swings that would be so crucial to his style, and for the rest of his career he'd be a nightclub pianist first and a concert-hall pianist second. He loved the vibrant popular music of Cuba and wrote scores of danzas cubanas and danzas afrocubanas, pursuing a nationalism analogous to Chopin's: just as Chopin polished his homeland's mazurkas, polkas, and polonaises, Lecuona imbued Cuban vernacular forms with sophisticated salon luster. He was an outsize romantic, like Liszt or Rachmaninoff; on RCA's two-CD set The Ultimate Collection: Lecuona Plays Lecuona he sounds smooth, sleek, and seductive. He often visited the States, leading a dance band called the Lecuona Cuban Boys or touring with Xavier Cugat--and on one extended New York stay, George Gershwin proclaimed him the best interpreter of Rhapsody in Blue. Sixty years later, in the late 80s, Chicago pianist Donald Neale was similarly smitten, and his infatuation has recently borne fruit: his new CD of Lecuona's music, Pieces of Night, features six of the danzas afrocubanas and Suite Española, a masterful evocation of Spanish folk styles. Neale's an excellent, conscientious pianist, and though he hasn't yet mastered Lecuona's dynamic nuances or technical legerdemain--especially in the left hand--his mimicry of the composer's playing is uncanny. He'll perform the entirety of the disc, plus Lecuona's XIXth Century Cuban Dances and his own homage to Latin jazz, Estudios Afrocubanos, with percussion accompaniment from Ruben Alvarez. Friday, 8 PM, auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State; 312-573-1233. TED SHEN

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