Review: Ma. Dolores Pradera at the Palau de la Música Catalana

Maria Dolores Pradera is known throughout Spain, and indeed much of Latin America, as “La Gran Dama de la Canción”, the “Great Lady of Song”. She was born in 1924 in Madrid, but spent part of her childhood in Latin America, where her father had business interests. As a result, she grew up exposed to both her own Castilian culture and that of the mix which resulted from Spanish colonization of the Americas. She began her career on stage and screen as an actress in the 1940’s, where she met her (later ex-) husband and father of her son, the great Spanish actor/director Fernando Fernán Gómez.

By the late 1950’s Ma. Dolores had abandoned her acting career to devote her time exclusively to the exploration of folkloric music of Spain and the Americas. Her training as an actress would serve her well on stage, bringing drama, flirtation, or pathos when needed to the performance of a particular piece. On top of which, her theatrically-trained, perfect diction makes her one of the Spanish singers most non-native speakers of Spanish find easiest to understand.

Today at the age of 85, Ma. Dolores is still a wonder to behold in concert. On December 29th as part of the 11th Annual Festival de Mil.lenni at the historic Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona’s equivalent of Carnegie Hall, she gave an amazing performance to a packed house. The Palau is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a masterpiece of Catalan art nouveau architecture:

This is only the second time I have had the privilege to see her in performance, though of course I have many of her albums. We had excellent seats for the show with a great view of the stage, thanks to my parents:

The first two songs made me worry a bit, as Ma. Dolores sounded a little bit out of voice. On a previous occasion I had gone to see her perform at the Palau and the show had to be cancelled at the last minute due to an illness causing her voice problems – something certainly understandably for any singer, but particularly for a lady in her 80’s. At this performance, following the second tune she apologized to the audience and admitted, “I always get a bit emotional when I perform here at the Palau, I’ll try to do better.” And my goodness she did.

At an age when most of her contemporaries are hobbling about on zimmer frames, Maria Dolores from then on dominated the stage and kept the audience transfixed for the next hour and a half. She sang new old songs, songs of other artists she admired, and the songs which made her famous, accompanied by a superb conjunto of two guitarists, a percussionist, and a bassist. Following her signature tune, the Peruvian waltz “La Flor de la Canela”, at the end of the concert programme, she received a lengthy standing ovation – something which does not often happen in musically finicky Barcelona.

After this she sang an encore, again to rapturous applause, and then another. Normally that would be it; the audience however, would not let her go, and kept calling her back to perform yet another and another piece. By the end of the evening she had performed seven encores. During the last of these, the great Mexican folk song “El Rey”, she led the audience in singing. I assure you that you have never seen anything like the entire audience of the Palau in Barcelona, from the orchestra seats to the boxes, stalls, balconies, and the gods, swaying from side to side in their seats and singing loudly together, all directed from the stage by one of the greatest performers and recorders of Spanish and Latin American music.

The Palau is very strict about no photography or filming during a performance, so I cannot share this moment with you visually. Here we see a videoclip of Ma. Dolores in performance elsewhere, some years ago, to give you some sense of her in concert:

After the show my mother, being an extremely resourceful lady, got us backstage to visit with Ma. Dolores for a few minutes; we were her last visitors of the evening and by this time it was approaching midnight. I can imagine that she was completely exhausted but, gracious as she is, she once again managed to give us a few minutes of her time:

Despite her towering stage presence, in person Ma. Dolores reminds me of no one so much as actress Katherine Helmond, tiny and delicate with a beautiful, porcelain face, and eyes that seem to, paradoxically, both flirt with you and yet say, “watch it” simultaneously. In any event, it was a great privilege not only to watch her perform once again, but also to spend a little time with her. Not to mention getting kissed on both cheeks – twice! – by one of the greatest interpreters of Spanish popular song and wished a Happy New Year. I hope I will get the chance to see her perform again, but those of my readers who happen to have the opportunity should avail themselves of it immediately. There are few – indeed, very few – performers in this day and age of gutter, lowest common denominator entertainment who can even attempt to match the grace, elegance, and phenomenal talent of this remarkable, grand lady.

>R.I.P. Mary Travers 1936-2009

>This morning I was saddened to learn of the death of Mary Travers, one of the members of the legendary pop-folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, who for many years had been suffering from leukemia. Like many American children born in the 1970’s, I grew up on the trio’s interpretations of American folk songs, Bob Dylan compositions, and the like from albums and Sesame Street appearances. Their more politically-oriented recordings, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had A Hammer”, made no impact on my consciousness, other than an appreciation of their musicianship. And arguably, my two favorite recordings of theirs were perhaps somewhat outside the mainstream for a 5-year old.

With respect to children’s songs, of course, Peter, Paul & Mary are most famous for “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a tune which I never really cared for. As I grew older I could appreciate the lyrics with respect to their reflection on the end of childhood, but I never understood why Little Jackie Paper never went back to visit Puff. I thought Jackie was a rather stupid boy for abandoning his dragon merely because he got older. I suppose like most Catalans, or half-Catalans in my case, I have a thing for dragons.

Yet more to the point, I never understood the lyrics in the sense that I could not foresee why anyone should be forced to put away games and toys simply as a result of the aging process. Despite my advancing years, when I get to visit my goddaughter and her brother, small children both, I immediately flop down on the carpet and start playing with them and whatever toys, coloring books, games, etc. come to hand, or watching “Thomas the Tank Engine”, “Charlie & Lola”, etc. When I am in Barnes & Noble I stop to page through “Owl At Home” just as easily as I might leaf through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.

My favorite recording by the trio on their children’s album was always “Lemon Tree”, which is partially based on a Brazilian folk song. Of course the lyrics really have little or nothing to do with children, other than the fact that the narrator is telling a story about what his father taught him when he was ten years old. Certainly I did not really understand what I was singing when I would sing along to lines like “One day beneath the lemon tree, my love and I did lie.” Looking back it seems odd that this tune would have been marketed to children, given the story it tells about the bittersweet nature of an unfaithful woman, but the chorus was repetitive and melodically easy to remember, and perhaps this explains its selection.

Tied in my estimation with “Lemon Tree” was always Peter, Paul & Mary’s rendition of John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane” which, unlike “Lemon Tree”, does not end with the sourness of disappointment. Now admittedly, as a child I did not entirely understand what this song was about either, but somehow it spoke to me beyond my years, probably in the same way that I understood another song from about the same time which remains one of my favorites, “Super Trooper” by ABBA. Both have lovely harmonies, and both are about a woman having to go away from the one she loves, difficult as it may be for her to do so – yet giving a faithful promise to return. The sadness Mary expressed throughout the song is suddenly alleviated toward the end by the promise, “When I come back, I’ll wear your wedding ring.” Even as a child, I “got” that.

Ms. Travers brought a great deal of joy to the lives of many children and adults through her music, whatever one may think of her politics. Fortunately for us, and for later generations of children, her gift of song will live on in her recordings. After this long and difficult battle with cancer, let us hope that she may rest in peace.