>The Great Lady of Song

>”A huge kiss for our Frank Sinatra!”

So said award-winning Spanish director Fernando Trueba last evening, during what can only be described as an avalanche of love and affectionate tributes for Maria Dolores Pradera, often called “La Gran Dama de la Canción” (“The Great Lady of Song”) because she is without question Spain’s greatest vocal interpreter of traditional Spanish and Latin American music. The comparison with Sinatra, in terms of her significance and influence in the Spanish-speaking world, is very apt, (though she is of course infinitely more attractive than he ever was.) Still performing today and as elegant as ever at the tender age of 86, “La Pradera”, as she is popularly known, began her career as a film and stage actress, but eventually moved into music, and was honored yesterday by the prestigious Instituto Cervantes in Madrid, the largest organization in the world dedicated to the study and promotion of Spanish language and culture.

The event, entitled “Maria Dolores Pradera: The Voice of the Two Shores”, recognized her contributions to the popularization and preservation of traditional songs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Mexican rancheras and Argentine tangos, to Peruvian waltzes and Catalan habaneras. Maria Dolores was honored with tributes from some of Spain’s most prominent actors, singers, journalists, government ministers, directors, and writers. Many attending the event would stand and burst into applause any time something particularly lovely was said about La Pradera, or when she herself would make a gesture or comment that garnered their approval.

Maria Dolores has always had a bit of sly humor, and as she arrived on stage she was directed to a white sofa where she was to sit and receive the bowings and scrapings of her suitors. “It makes me very happy to be here,” she said. “As I have always said, I prefer being loved to being successful, and I believe this desire has been fulfilled. I can only give thanks to life for having such marvelous people at my side. And now, if you do not mind, I am going to sit in order to listen to your flirtations.”

And the flirtations, praise, and thank-yous continued at length, with La Pradera receiving the words with graciousness and aplomb, though at one point she noted that she was trying very hard to keep from crying because “I put my make-up and mascara on for tonight.” The evening ended with an impromptu acapella mini-concert performed by Maria Dolores. She was initially joined on stage by some of the hugely popular Spanish singers who had earlier paid tribute to her, including Ana Belén, Miguel Bosé and Victor Manuel, and this choir was joined by other singers from the audience who spontaneously came up and joined them on stage.

I grew up listening to Maria Dolores’ albums, and have had the great privilege of hearing her in concert and meeting her privately – most recently over Christmas 2009, which I have written about previously. She is as lovely and gracious off-stage as on, and it is impossible not to fall in love with her. If an artist can be said to flirt with an entire audience, La Pradera is a great flirt, but she is, more than this, a great artist. She has an impeccable quality of diction and sense of timing in her singing that shows how Spanish, when properly sung or spoken, can sound far more beautiful than any other language, including French.

The first time I saw her perform, toward the end of the program the power went out. There were construction workers outside doing repairs on the sidewalk, and they had hit something which plunged the entire Palace of Music and a couple of surrounding blocks in Barcelona into darkness. We sat in the magnificent stained-glass hall for several minutes before the back-up generators kicked on.

But Maria Dolores herself was completely nonplussed by the loss of electric power. After the initial murmuring of the audience died down, she just kept on singing, in the dark, with no microphones or amplification, her voice filling the 2,000-plus seat auditorium as completely as if nothing had happened. Eventually the lights came on again, and she received a standing ovation with thunderous applause. It was a magical experience I will never forget.

Because of the world we live in today, with its cheap and ugly Lady Gagas and trick-turning auto-tune Miley Cyruses, it is a sad reality that when La Pradera leaves us, there will be no one to replace her. She is a last survivor of an age when style and substance were not strangers. Therefore, gentle reader, if you ever have the chance to attend one of her increasingly rare concerts, I urge you: do not miss the opportunity.

Maria Dolores Pradera last evening,
singing from her couch at the Instituto Cervantes

>Happy Birthday Mom!!!

>The Courtier is at home for Christmas, and truthfully is not anticipating a great deal of blogging this week – at least not of any particular length. However, as it is his mother’s birthday today, he thought it a good idea to use the occasion to post a video from her favorite singer, the great Maria Dolores Pradera. Mother Courtier will be traveling next week to Barcelona to see “La Pradera” in concert at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, where The Courtier himself has ben fortunate enough to see her perform on several occasions, and to meet her in her dressing room afterwards.

Now in her 80’s, La Pradera continues to sell out concert halls all over Spain. Those of you who may have the opportunity to hear her perform would be well-advised by this writer to do so while you are still able. Here she sings a Peruvian waltz, “La flor de la canela”, which has become her signature piece:

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.