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A blend of melodies chimed from the large grand piano at Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater this weekend, and filled the intimate concert hall with warm harmonies interspersed with eerie flat and minor notes.
“March is Music,” a concert series at Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, is fully underway, which means Bronx Piano Sundays are offered for free every Sunday afternoon in March. The intent is to bring a wide array of music, from jazz, traditional and classical, to a local audience and to showcase one of the theater’s prized possessions, a Steinway & Sons grand piano.
“It’s like my third daughter,” said program curator Alvan Colón Lespier of the Steinway. The piano’s uniqueness comes from a handmade design of 2,134 parts, and a soundboard of Sitka spruce that is exclusive to the Steinway & Sons company. The company, whose factory is located in Queens, even requires a minimum number of growth rings from the spruce before it is acceptable for a soundboard of its quality.
“We’re very happy to have our audiences listen to a Steinway, and have our artists play the Steinway, which is a great instrument,” Colón Lespier said.
Bronx Piano Sundays has been part of the theater’s concert series for 15 years and has showcased musicians of world renown and Grammy nominations.
South Bronx local Maritza Sabio attended the concert on Sunday for the first time, and was happy to discover this neighborhood venue for live music.
“It’s a great thing, people tend to go downtown without realizing there are things happening right here in the Bronx,” Sabio said. “People usually only talk about the bad things.”
Francesca Khalifa was the most recent to grace the keys. Khalifa, an Italian-Egyptian pianist, studied under Cuban pianist German Diez Nieto, whose brother and first teacher, Alfredo Diez Nieto, was one of the most renowned Cuban composers at the time of his death, at age 103 in 2021.
Khalifa concluded her performance with a piece composed by Alfredo Diez Nieto in 1943, called “Tocata,” as an homage to the Cuban artists who have gone widely under the radar, but whom she learned from.
“It was precious for me to perform this piece here, because I know it’s a neighborhood with a Latinx majority, and I think, even if not, it’s still important,” Khalifa said, and added, “I want to represent the diversity of our society, not just the European classical music, white men writing.”
Khalifa became a student of Diez Nieto in 2012, and after his passing in 2014, remained touched by his mentorship. She fostered a curiosity for Cuban classical music, enough so that she traveled to Cuba to meet his older brother Alfredo. He wrote “Tocata,” for his brother’s graduation, but the piece was performed for the first time only a few years ago.
“For me, it’s such an important part of our diverse culture and it’s a pity that we don’t get to hear it performed more,” Khalifa said, and added, “there is a form of discrimination in classical music too, it’s also on the shoulders of artists to do something about it.”
The audience members cheered, “Brava, Signora,” and “Un otro, un otro,” at the end of her performance. They included first-time attendees of the theater, like Khalifa herself, and long-time patrons. South Bronx resident Evelyn Mortis has frequented the theater for 43 years, and attends performances that range from classical music to Reggaeton, and also attended the previous night’s flamenco concert by Sonia Olla and Ismael Fernández.
She said it’s “very hard to have what they have,” referencing the theater. She loves to dance to all the music, she said, and will be back at it after she undergoes a knee surgery.
The next Bronx Piano Sunday events will be performed by Chantal Balestri on March 19, and Siyumeng Wang on March 26. All events start at 3pm, and admission is free.
Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater is located at 575 Walton Ave., near the 2, 4, and 5, subway stop at 149th Street and Grand Concourse. It is a multigenerational performance arts space, and aims to showcase Puerto Rican and Latinx cultural legacies through plays, musicals and creative performances. The theater’s website and future events can be found here: https://pregonesprtt.org