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Performance review

Article: Gilberto Santa Rosa and his Orchestra: The Man and His Music

by George De Stefano

Gilberto Santa Rosa's "The Man and His Music" show at Carnegie Hall should have been a major event, el concierto del año. It certainly had the aura of an occasion. Puerto Rico's crown prince of salsa came to town to play not the usual Latin music venues but the venerable temple of Euro-American concert music. Salsa's royalty, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, were in the sold-out house to bestow their benediction, as was lesser luminary Tito Nieves and rocker David Byrne. And the "Man and His Music" concept was intended to display Santa Rosa's artistic reach, as well as the breadth of Puerto Rican music, from folkloric idioms to contemporary salsa.

But the high expectations were rarely fulfilled, and the show was mostly a letdown. Part of the problem was the house: Carnegie Hall is no place for amplified music, especially bottom-heavy styles like salsa. To avoid having the tumbaos turned into a booming echo by the hall's acoustics, the band kept the volume frustratingly low.

Moreover, the physical constraints imposed by the august surroundings discouraged the interaction with the fans that salsa thrives on. Nobody expected to dance in Carnegie's aisles, but when los cueros te llaman and you can't respond except by patting your foot or clapping along, a three hour show seems endless. At a club like the late lamented Village Gate you could at least drum on your table top, get up and move your butt, and, if you desired, head for the rear of the room to actually dance.

But even if Carnegie Hall hadn't had those built-in disadvantages the concert still would have disappointed because of Santa Rosa himself: the music he chose to perform and his own limitations as a performer.

Santa Rosa's 14-piece orchestra, conducted by Cucco Pena, was augmented by a string section, and this expanded aggregation gave the evening's first hint of what was to go wrong. Playing an overture of the singer's hits, they worked themselves up to a kitschy crescendo that evoked Ferrante and Teicher, those piano-pounding maestros of Hollywood mood music.

What followed was rarely as dismaying as that, but there was not a single moment that could be called transcendent, and Santa Rosa, at his best, is eminently capable of transcendence.

Instead of thrilling music, Santa Rosa delivered his Greatest Hits and non-musical routines designed to display his versatility as a performer. So "No Me Dejes Solo," a bomba, was interrupted by an actor, Julio Axel Landron, flamboyantly declaiming a bawdy poem by the Afro-Puerto Rican author Luis Pales Matos. For me the recitation got in the way of Santa Rosa and the music, and I came to dread each of Landron's frequent reappearances. Later in the show Santa Rosa delivered a mildly funny comic monologue and danced with women in the audience, one of whom was a "plant" — a professional named Sonya Cortes, who joined him onstage.

Santa Rosa's recording strategy appears to be to do one commercial pop-salsa album for the fans, the next one for himself and his more discerning listeners. But he followed only one half of the game plan at Carnegie. Despite the "Man and His Music" theme, the evening's selections came mostly from two hit-laden albums, Perspectiva (1991) and Punto De Vista (1990). He performed only two numbers from his latest, the ambitious De Cara Al Viento, and nothing at all from his superb Tito Rodriguez tribute, A Dos Tiempos de un Tiempo. That seemed to be just fine with most of the audience; they received the De Cara songs — "Suenos Son" and "Te Propongo" — with polite applause but went wild for innocuous ear candy like "Conciencia" and "Vivir Sin Ella."

For this listener, the succession of mid-tempo, gently chugging salsas romanticos induced a profound, watch-checking boredom. I longed for a searing trumpet obligato, or a raging piano montuno, to blow away the air of polite restraint that kept the show from really taking off.

Santa Rosa has proved on his two best recordings that sophistication needn't come at the expense of passion. But that quality is precisely what Santa Rosa lacks as a performer. He comes off as a nice guy, sincere, humilde, and with a sense of humor. But exciting he isn't. In a recent review of De Cara Al Viento (Descarga 19), I noted that Santa Rosa is a "chubby, sometimes ungainly performer who projects little charisma or sexuality onstage." Seeing those words in print I felt I had been overly harsh. But the Carnegie gig convinced me I had been right. Santa Rosa does not command the stage like a star, or a great sonero, should. His dancing looks stiff and rehearsed, unlike Oscar D'Leon's hip-swinging abandon. In fact, his moves are basically dental — he lets those pearly whites, wreathed by his thick black moustache, do most of the work. And a great smile is no substitute for sex, danger, drama.

Actually, I never really expected an ecstatic D'Leon-esque blowout from Santa Rosa. I did expect vocal pyrotechnics, and although he sang well, the bursts of inspired improvisation that usually characterize his shows, and which he generously provides on De Cara Al Viento, came much too infrequently.

If the show was mostly disappointing there were some rewards. Ismael Rivera's "Dime Porque" was a treat, and a welcome respite from the blandness of Santa Rosa's own material. There was also a hushed, almost sotto voce coda to "Perdoname" in which Santa Rosa delivered some of the improvisatory goods he'd stingily held back from us during most of the evening.

There was one other moment early in the show. Santa Rosa, in the middle of a number, strolled to the edge of the stage to receive flowers and a kiss from a female fan. When he leaned forward, still singing, to meet her lips, she snatched his red handkerchief from his breast pocket and ran up the aisle, waving it in triumph. Santa Rosa was momentarily nonplussed, but he recovered quickly and improvised a line about his missing pañuelo. Not that Santa Rosa should've spent the evening giving up haberdashery, but the show certainly would've benefited from more such spontaneity and surprise.

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