Ensemble celebrates Chilean heritage

By GREG HAYMES, Staff writer
First published: Monday, November 1, 2004

The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once wrote, "Poetry is song and fertility."

And Saturday evening, those words sounded as true as ever as Troy Savings Bank Music Hall played host to a celebration of Neruda and his homeland. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth, the spectacular Chilean folk ensemble Inti-Illimani wove a musical spell and the crowd was swept along on the melodic energy and vital rhythms.

The seven-man group has been making rich, glorious music for more than three decades, feeding the human spirit with a joyous sound that transcends political borders, musical boundaries and language barriers.

"Poetry is a way to sing," declared guitarist Jorge Coulon, and Inti-Illimani certainly knows how to sing--with passion, pride and poetry.

The band turned in a dizzying performance, with each of the seven members switching instruments at least a half-dozen times throughout the course of their two hour-long sets. Front and center Juan Flores was a dynamo, especially when he picked up the charango, a small, ukulele-size fretted instrument with 10 strings. Christian Gonzalez was no less a wonder, playing a dozen different kinds of flutes, as well as guitar, bass and percussion.

The crowd-pleaser, however, was Efren Manuel Viera, whose main instrument was the clarinet, and in tandem with Daniel Cantillana's soaring violin playing, the melodies drifted above the churning Latin rhythms like a gentle breeze.

Saturday was the final date on the group's American tour, and they were in a particularly fun-loving mood. The show-stealing moment of the night was a playful dynamic and absolutely musical duel between Flores and Viera, both playing cajon, a box-like wooden drum.

In addition to being brilliant instrumentalists, each member was an inspired vocalist as well. And when they melded their voices together into intricate harmonies--well, that was poetry to be sure.

Co-sponsored by the Music Hall and the New York State Writers Institute, the concert was an attempt to meld music and poetry. Poet-actor David Yezzi--a last-minute substitute for Ilan Stavans--read a half-dozen selections from Neruda's poetry throughout the evening, and the band followed with a song based on the poem.

It was a grand idea, but it didn't quite work. With the exception of "I Wish the Woodcutter Would Wake Up," an impassioned plea for peace, the poems were too short. Or maybe there just weren't enough of them. And it would have been more interesting to fuse the poetry and the music together, instead of side by side.

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