There's lots of heart in cellist John-Henry Crawford's 'Corazón'
Transcript as heard on TPR's 'Classics a la Carte'
James Baker: A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to cellist John-Henry Crawford about his career, most recently boosted by the release of his new album, titled "Corazón." Our conversation was wide ranging, from music to the cuisines of Mexico. But first I had to know about his name hyphenated, John-Henry.
John-Henry Crawford: Yes, probably my southern heritage! Rather, my grandmother was from Mississippi. And my great-grandfather's name was John-Henry and I also had an uncle great uncle named John-Henry. So I think it's the kind of double name, southern double name trend is what happened there.
JB: In the summer of 2019, Crawford traveled to Mexico to compete in the ninth international Carlos Prieto Cello Competition. He won, which led to his deep dive into music from throughout Latin America, and a particularly deep interest in the music of Manuel Ponce. In a moment, we will hear two short works by Ponce followed in our two by an extended work for cello and piano Ponce Sonata in G minor. But first, I thought it would be interesting to know how these musical competitions work.
JHC: It's every three years, and it happens in Morelia, Mexico. And coincidentally, I actually had been to Morelia about a decade prior for a tour that we did, we went to South America. And that was one of our stops. So it was it was a great experience competing there.
JB: Who served on the jury? I would assume given the name Carlos Prieto Competition that Prieto was at least present.
JHC: There were a number of judges. Of course, Carlos Prieto, several Latin American cellists. Also, there was a composer, Mario Lavista. And he wrote a piece for solo cello. Really interesting, beautiful work, has a lot of trills, a lot of kind of shimmery sound. It kind of creates a sound world. But he was also a judge, and gave a prize for the person who he thought did the best on his piece in particular. And also, he was Castro Balbi, until recently, has was teaching at TCU. That was a nice collection of cellists for the jury. And it was special to play for them.
JB: You are no rookie at these competitions, are you?
JHC: That's true. I've done quite a quite a number of competitions over the years, and, you know, it's one of those things where you just have to keep keep stepping up to the plate and doing them because depending on the day, depending on who's playing that day, you know, who the jury is, these things can really change the results of a competition. And I think we always have to take it with a grain of salt, who wins and loses a competition in the music world because it's so subjective. And if you reverse the order of who plays and you reverse the seating of the jury, who knows, maybe they might feel differently and, and choose differently. So you know, I think they're a great opportunity for people to rise up and do better in their careers. And that's a great goal to shoot for. And I've enjoyed doing them because it always gives me something to prepare for, something to aim for. This is one of the ones I was fortunate to win and there have been some others as well in the past. But I think after the pandemic hit, I realized my I decided to kind of retire as retire from competing as a cellist.
JB: John-Henry, what are your plans for the future? Recitalist? Teacher? Would you consider playing in a symphony orchestra?
JHC: Really all of the above sound like great options. What I've been doing a lot lately is, of course, the recording side of things. I mean, this will be my second recording. And that to me is apart from giving concerts, from performing for the public... recording, it's something I really love and cherish because it's a way for us musicians to put a stamp on our . . . or create something that's going to last longer than the concert. Because I guess one of the what makes music so beautiful, but also what's a little bit bittersweet about it is after we play the concert, the music stops, right? And so that concert, for it to live on, would be nice. And recordings allow us to do that. So I take, I guess, pleasure in the fact that after I die these recordings will hopefully still live on and people can enjoy them. But I do a lot of private teaching as well, here in New York and certainly think that teaching is going to be something that will be important to me as I go out later on in life.
JB: John-Henry includes three works by Manuel Ponce on his new album 'Corazon.' And both of these works certainly live up to the title of the album, for they are sentimental and from the heart, especially 'Estrellita.'
JB: In 2019, John Henry won the Carlos Prieto Cello Competition down in Mexico, which reinforced his already active curiosity about music of Latin America. I recently talked to him about his new recording, called 'Corazón,' asking how he went about selecting the music he would include on the recording.
JHC: When I was a student at the Curtis Institute, we did a tour to Mexico, and to Costa Rica, and Brazil. And so I thought it would be fitting to have a similar theme of kind of a musical tour to travel around Latin America. And all of these pieces are from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico. And so I felt it was a nice kind of way to cover different parts of Latin America. We have something Caribbean, we have Mexico, Central America, and then Argentina and Brazil. And these pieces in particular, were interesting to me because they don't just show influence from Latin America, but also from other parts of the world. So for instance, Piazzolla. While he was born in Argentina, he also lived in New York for many years and his childhood and his ancestors were Italian, Piazzolla being an Italian name. And he also studied with Nadia Boulanger, a French composer. And he kind of based his style and this Nuevo Tango style, which came out of I think milonga, which is kind of Uruguayan-Argentine style. So they're just in this one person. They're like five, six different cultural influences.
JB: Winning the Carlos Prieto Competition has opened up solo opportunities for John-Henry in Mexico.
JHC: So about a month or two after the competition, I returned to give a concert with the festival there in Morelia. And then I also went to León, and Guanajuato last year, in November. And that trip for me it was right after I had recorded this album. And that trip for me, is what made me decide that I wanted to start learning Spanish. And so when I got back, I started, you know, learning more seriously. And fortunately, I'll be returning this August to Mexico, back to León. But no, I think Mexico is great. I've had some of the best food I've ever had in Mexico. Mole poblano was one of my favorite dishes. It can have over 100 individual ingredients in the in the sauce, so I thought that was fascinating.
JB: A few weeks ago, as I prepared to interview cellist John-Henry Crawford, I noticed that his grandfather's name was Robert Popper, a fact which intrigued me. I had to ask John Henry if his grandfather, and therefore he was related to the famous cellist and pedagogue, David Popper. This opened up a whole story about his grandfather and his grandfather's cello, which is today played by the grandson, John-Henry Crawford. So what about your grandfather's last name. Is there a connection to David Popper?
JHC: That's a great question. You know, we have wondered that for years. And in fact, one of my earlier cello teachers, Andres Diaz, who teaches at SMU, he used to joke that he would tell people that I was a descendant, that he taught a descendant of David popper. We don't really know, but we like to pretend we are. We'd like to think maybe we are. But we haven't looked too deeply into it because we don't want to find out we're not! So I don't know. I think we for now, I'm happy keeping the mystery there. At some point I'd like to figure out if, if you know, there is a relation; but about the cello. My grandfather, Robert Popper, he was from Innsbruck, Austria, and actually lived on Beethoven Straße. And in 1938, about two months before Kristallnacht, he and his brother saw the writing on the wall and how the country was changing almost overnight, with the takeover and decided that they needed to get out, and that they needed to leave Austria. And so my grandfather found a Nazi travel passport that he bought on the black market to take a train through Germany, to Lithuania, and then to Latvia, where he awaited a sponsor for three months to be able to certify his immigration attempt to the US. And finally, he found someone who also loved music. So music was kind of a common denominator. And he was the only passenger on a cargo ship to Denmark through the Baltic Sea. And then he took a train back through France to Switzerland, where he picked up this cello and several other instruments that he had had smuggled across the border from Austria. Because the Austrian exit tax was whatever you had, you couldn't leave with, you know, if you had jewelry, if you had money, if you had an instrument, you can't take that with you. And so he had to have it smuggled into Switzerland for safekeeping. But there's actually an article I wrote called “If My Cello Could Talk” that details, more of the story about his parents, my grandfather's parents who were woken up in the morning on Kristallnacht, and taken to the river, and they were thrown in the river and they had to pretend like they were, you know, drowning, and they swam to safety. But it's, it's, you know, it would be interesting, what my cello would say, if it could, could say anything about those experiences, because it's been in our family for over 100 years.
JB: John-Henry, his new album is called 'Corazón,' the music of Latin America. It covers a large geography including Mexico, Cuba, Central America, Brazil and Argentina. Occupying the lion's share of the disk is music by Manuel Ponce, including the two salon pieces we heard in hour one. And in a way I hate to refer to “Estrellita” and “Por Ti Mi Corazon” as salon music, because it's music of great heart and passion. In fact, John-Henry, I'm afraid Ponce is sometimes sold short. Many don't know his work in a more extended form, also music which pushes out on the somewhat conservative inclinations of his salon music. But I'm still amused when we hear the words bi-tonality, atonality, Latin American modernism, applied to Ponce's music. I know what you mean, in the notes you wrote for your CD. But to some listeners, those are scary words.
JHC: Yes, you're absolutely right. You know, it's interesting this, this Sonata, when I first read through it, I realized, just in the first page that he kind of throws back to “Estrellita” a little bit, not necessarily the same theme. But the second theme, is very long and very soaring melody, which it's almost like this little, you know, moment in time where this could be another “Estrellita” if you just took it out of the sonata, and put it and I love that because it shows especially in that Sonata, but also in the other piece recorded of his, “Por Ti Mi Corazón.” He has just a remarkable way of writing melodies and of things that are longing things that are romantic and heartfelt and, and he he carries that throughout the sonata. And there's this theme, it's kind of a leap of a fifth, that goes all the way through the sonata. And in the fourth moment, though, to your point about, you know, this different compositional style he has, a lot of it's really pushing the envelope in terms of tonality. He really uses a lot of chromaticism, and the last couple pages of the piece, you know, it's kind of this burlesque dance. It's Allegro Burlesque, I think is the title of the last moment. And it's just this very, kind of rustic thing. But then he brings in these really sometimes just out of the out of left field harmonies that are so surprising. And it it's I think he does it in a really interesting way. And it it keeps you engaged throughout the whole piece. It keeps you engaged till the end to the very last note. But also just the way he ends the piece. I remember the first time I heard it, I thought, "Is that the end?" It's a very, it's a very striking, ending and abrupt but it's it has an impact. And it's it's like wow, it finished. But is there more? No, it's finished. It's really over and Did it take it takes you maybe five or 10 seconds to process that it's finished but so I think it's a really interesting work and I had a lot of fun working on it.
JB: I look forward to following your career. I look forward to getting more acquainted with your new CD. And I wish you all the best.
JHC: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me on. It's a pleasure to chat with you.