Recital to feature ‘Songs From and of the East’
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
The cultural swath that ran through Rachel Velarde’s home was wide.
Her mother was a Chinese scholar; her father, an Arabic scholar (they lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for two years, starting when she was 4 years old).
“I have training in languages – French, German, Italian and, of course, English,” said Velarde – now Dr. Rachel Velarde, associate professor of voice and Director of Academic Excellence for the Grand Canyon University College of Fine Arts and Production.
Culture in her home in her formative years extended beyond the East and Middle East to include the fine arts. She studied ballet seriously in high school until she was sidelined by an injury, and music always drifted through her house.
“My grandfather was a theatre organist, and I learned how to roller-skate to him playing the organ,” she said.
Those cultural bright spots that helped shape Velarde will merge together in her fall faculty recital, “Songs From and of the East,” to be performed at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Tempe, followed by a second presentation at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the GCU Recital Hall, Room 157 in the COFAP Building, Building 35.
Velarde will be joined by Dr. Luis Rodriguez-Morales, GCU adjunct faculty in piano, and Director of Music and Liturgy at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, where Velarde cantors multiple services in English and sometimes in Spanish.
The seeds were planted for Velarde’s Eastern-themed program when she was speaking with a colleague, Dr. Teri Herron, at a Cal-West Region National Association of Teachers of Singing event. Herron is working on a publication of Korean art songs, and the two discussed ways to expose students to more nonstandard song repertoire.
Velarde and Rodriguez-Morales’ recital will feature Korean songs – Herron’s research is a primary source of performance material — Japanese art songs, Alexander Tcherepnin’s Seven Songs on Chinese Poems, Opus 71, and the Japanischer Frühling song set by composer and concentration camp survivor Max Kowalski, who worked as a piano-tuner and synagogue singer after his release, before establishing himself as a singing teacher.
Also, Rodriguez-Morales’ own composition, “Love Songs Around the World,” will be part of the repertoire. It will color the program with more world influences, as it features sets in Indonesian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
The two say the recital is an homage to the world music that has influenced them throughout their lives.
One challenge in performing these works for her is the language acquisition.
“I’m singing not a single word of English,” said Velarde, noting that song translations will be included in the program. She worked to find resources to convert special characters into phonemes – the smallest unit of sound in speech, usually a single letter — and internalize the translation more than usual. She also received help from colleagues she met through the Pan American Vocology Association, who assisted with Velarde’s Japanese and Chinese pronunciation.
“I really wanted to make sure I’m associating these phonemes with substantive thought,” she added.
The Chinese works for her were the easiest to work with, she said, “because I’ve had that sound in my ears the longest,” recalling those days of growing up around her Chinese scholar mom. In fact, at age 6, Chinese was the first foreign language she formally studied.
The Korean songs she describes as being very similar to turn-of-the-20th century Italian art songs, compositions usually written for solo voice and piano accompaniment.
A NATS colleague of Velarde from Arizona, Suzi More, recommended she perform Kowalski’s Japanischer Frühling, which are German translations of Japanese poetry.
What’s exciting for the vocalist, a mezzo-soprano, is that she will have the opportunity to perform the world music-influenced work of her colleague, Rodriguez-Morales, who is a native of Puerto Rico.
“He composed them as part of his master’s at Westminster Choir College. He took national stylistic traits into account for each of those,” Velarde said.
Rodriguez-Morales said of his work, “This set of songs reflects my interest in ethnic music.”
Each song is in a different language and represents a different culture through the use of various folk scales and modes, such as “Indonesian pentatonic,” for example. He also employed folk rhythms and other musical aspects, including the use of the Japanese way to recite poems. The sources for the poems are diverse, he said, spanning from the first to the 21st centuries.
Velarde and Rodriguez-Morales hope they can expand the scope of music for their students with this program.
“It’s not very commonly presented music, but most of it is very accessible and won’t sound highly foreign to our ears because a lot of it was influenced by Christian missionaries, especially the Korean and the Japanese. Some of it, especially the Korean, is in the style of Western art music,” Velarde said, adding that she hopes the campus community also will embrace this music from — and of — the East.
“The language is foreign-sounding, but the music itself will sound pretty good.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Songs From and of the East”
Where and when: 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 1800 E. Libra Dr., Tempe, and also at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the GCU Recital Hall, Room 157, in the Fine Arts Building (Building 35)
Information: 602-639-8880 or firstname.lastname@example.org