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Music in the time of COVID: Celebrity piano in Old City


José & Jan

By Peggy Ann Bliss

catbliss40@gmail.com


Since she was a young girl, Old San Juan denizen Jan D’Esopo has worked in an artistic medium she molds with her hands, conceives with her eyes and creates from her heart.


Now the 87-year-old sculptor/painter and doyenne of the Gallery Inn Boutique Hotel has added another dimension – her ears. And she’s inviting pandemic-starved concertgoers to hear the virtuosi in her 18th-century space.


She has launched a new series – Celebrity Pianists – adding chairs to her second-floor Music Room, baptizing it The Steinway Salon for its grand piano and for the local society she founded in 2015 with island concert pianist José “Kiko” Ramos Santana to carve a legacy for emerging keyboard artists, especially those who cannot afford an instrument.


“This will be something for the next generations,” she said, after opening the new series supported by the society’s Puerto Rico Charitable Trust for the Education of Young Musicians. One of their recent success stories was Conservatory of Puerto Rico graduate Bryan Ojeda, who in 2018 made his debut with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, and who recently gave a pre-season concert at the Gallery Inn with musician colleagues to raise money for his tuition at New York University, where he will undertake master’s degree studies in piano.


The new Steinway season began Sept. 21 with American favorite Michael Lewin offering an impressive interpretation of works by Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin and Scarlatti, among others.


A second concert followed by Ukrainian virtuoso Stanislav Khristenko, called “poet of the piano,” by Belgium’s “Le Soir.”


After more than a year of Zoom presentations, the concert was a high note, said Lewin, in his second live performance since the quarantine began on March 15, 2020.


“I tired of doing virtual concerts and just stopped,” he said with palpable emotion. “I needed to get back to live audiences.”


Not only has the situation devastated performers financially and artistically, it has plunged devotees into a cultural void.


“I can’t believe we haven’t heard Michael in a year and a half,” gushed one opening-night fan, who had followed Lewin for 19 consecutive years in the Ponce Art Museum.


“We don’t mind taking over, if Ponce can’t,” said D’Esopo, noting that the cultural icon had not yet resumed its popular concerts after earthquakes and COVID hit in rapid succession.


The series continues Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. with pianist Jorge Luis Prats, a frequent visitor to San Juan. Prats, 66, has been a citizen of Spain since 2005 after a full career in his native Cuba, including as artistic director of the Cuba National Symphony. He studied with the famed Paul Badura Skoda in Vienna, and other master teachers in Paris, Moscow and Warsaw.


British pianist Ian Hobson, whose international festival D’Esopo has hosted for seven consecutive years, will handle the fourth concert Nov. 16 with cellist Ko Iwasaki and violinist Andrés Cárdenes and Ramos Santana will wind up the series Dec. 7.


It’s the piano, stupid


What is it about the piano that beckons to D’Esopo, who is not a musician?


“I fell in love through my father Giuseppe D’Esopo, a professor of medicine at Yale who actually studied piano at the university Music Department,” she said.


Back in the 1950s, a magnificent Steinway D became available on campus and her father brought it home, where it shared a long and happy life in the D’Esopo living room. It was not until 1989 that the instrument was shipped to the historic mansion where his daughter had already been building her dream since 1961. That year the young divorced mother with two small children arrived from Boston (Bennington College art degree in hand) to rescue the abandoned residence of the Spanish artillery commander of nearby El Morro Fortress. With the help of relatives on the island and restoration funds from the Old City, she bought the ruined setting, and set about restoring and embedding it with the jewels of great European and Puerto Rican painters. As she became inspired by the island, D’Esopo contributed hundreds of her own watercolors, oils and especially sculptures.


Just as the artist transformed this six-villa space into a museum with her hands, the beloved family piano conquered the ear space, as music permeated every rafter, and more pianos moved in.


With eight pianos – six of them Steinways – spread throughout The Gallery’s seven-level structure, the sky’s the limit for her latest dream. When no one is practicing, recordings of pianists who have played there fill the air.


The many pianos will “allow those who have no piano to practice on only the best,” D’Esopo says.


Celebrating the launching of the society, a state-of-the-art Spirio moved in under a dazzling chandelier in the new Cannon Room, a superb showcase for Puerto Rican pianists aiming for Carnegie Hall.


In this Venetian-style pub with an entrance on San Sebastián Street, guests, society members and other music lovers can attend live jazz and classical concerts. All profits go to the foundation for pianists.


Dedicated to late co-proprietor (and D’Esopo’s husband) Héctor Manuel “Manuco” Gandía, the intimate space provides an elegant atmosphere to raise money for young pianists.


For information about the Steinway Society, call (787) 433-4015 or visit steinwaysocietyofpr@gmail.com.

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