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Amadeo Roldán

Cuban composers of concert music are not plentiful today, and during the 1920s and 30s they were scarcer still. But the European-trained Cuban composer Amadeo Roldán managed such success during that time that today, nearly a century later, his name is still prominent in his native country: both a school for performing arts and a major concert hall in Havana bear his name. While performances of his work abroad have never been common, Roldán's highly charged blend of classical European style and energetic Caribbean folk rhythms is finding its way onto an increasing number of recordings in the twenty-first century.

Roldán was born on July 12, 1900, while his Cuban parents were staying in Paris; years later, he returned to Europe to seek out serious musical training -- mostly for violin, an instrument that he mastered well enough to win the prestigious Sarasate Prize -- at the Madrid Conservatory. Graduating from the Conservatory in 1916, he stayed on in Spain for a few years to privately study composition; in 1921 he returned to Havana. In 1924, he joined up with the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, working first as concertmaster (1924), then as assistant conductor (1925), and finally as the principal conductor (1932). In 1935, he joined the faculty of the Havana Conservatory. His tenure there would be a short one, though, for Amadeo Roldán was destined to join those composers -- and there are many -- who never made it to their 40th birthday: he died two days into March 1939.

As a young man, Roldán spent much of his time playing the violin, and as he grew older, conducting and teaching consumed his time. He was, as a result, never a particularly prolific composer. There are only a dozen or so works to his credit, but they include orchestral, chamber, vocal and solo piano pieces. Roldán also composed a series of short pieces called Ritmicás; the fifth and sixth of these are scored for percussion alone, and may well be the first such compositions in the literature.

The orchestral suite drawn up from his 1928 ballet La Rebambaramba has proven to be Roldán's best-loved piece of music, and in some ways can be taken as a sample of his whole catalog. The orchestra used for it is standard, save for the inclusion of then-exotic Cuban percussion instruments like maracas and guiro. Rhythm is the life's blood of Cuban music, and so it is for Roldán: the orchestra sways and bobs through four movements as toes tap in the audience.