As San Diego Opera prepares to premier Gabriela Lena Frank’s new opera about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera this weekend, the city is experiencing a touch of Frida fever. Thursday at UC San Diego Park & Market in the East Village, the ensemble Camarada presented a concert titled Frida Dreams, a cabaret confection of Mexican and Latin American music that was popular during Kahlo’s heyday.Jazz vocalist Coral MacFarland-Thuet, a new addition to Cabaret’s roster of stellar musicians, gave stylish, compelling interpretations of Mexican folk songs as well as the more probing art songs by Agustín Lara and Carlos Gardel. Thursday’s Camarada instrumentalists included Camarada founder and flutist Beth Ross Buckley, guitarist Peter Sprague, bassist Mackenzie Leighton, and pianist Danny Green.
I was particularly impressed with Brazilian composer Celso Machado’s Musiques populaires brésiliennes, an elegantly constructed set of Latin dances scored for piano, flute, and bass; the ensemble’s fleet arrangement of Agustín Lara’s song “Solamente una vez,” and the passion of Gardel’s tango “Volver.”
Sprague composed an instrumental work expressly for this concert which he titled “The Two Fridas,” inspired by a Kahlo self-portrait of the same name. Attempting to capture Kahlo’s many personal facets in a single movement produced an uneven, episodic musical journey, but the vibrant guitar solo and vivacious dance at the finale made that journey worthwhile.
At the piano, Green infused his sophisticated jazz extensions into Lara’s alternately melancholic and exuberant song “Noche de ronda” and gently uplifted the traditional Mexican folksong “La Bruja.” His elegant keyboard touch and contagious spark animated the ensemble throughout the evening, as did the reliably inventive jazz solos of Peter Sprague on guitar.
Flutist Beth Ross Buckley’s felicitous melodic gifts stood out in the Machado work, especially her enchanting syncopations that defined the middle movement “Paçoca,” and her more recently acquired jazz chops took flight in Ellington’s standard “In a Sentimental Mood.” Ellington found his way into this otherwise Mexican and Latin American program because Kahlo became a fan of American jazz in her visits to New York City in the 1940s.
Bassist Mackenzie Leighton’s gently pulsing bass lines kept every offering comfortably grounded, and the dark hues of his introspective bowed solo in Sprague’s “The Two Fridas” proved exceptionally persuasive.
The evening’s welcome surprise turned out to be the Park & Market venue, which is a capacious and commodious setting for live musical performance. Essential a grandly oversized foyer to the sleek new modernist building, the room’s high ceiling gives the music plenty of space to comfortably resonate. For this performance, the stage was backed by an immense digital screen on which various historical photographs of Frida Kahlo and her art were displayed as a backdrop to the performers. Large windows to the streets provide a second backdrop: pedestrians on Market and the trolleys going both directions on Park Boulevard. Fortunately, the architects designed the room with sufficient insulation to keep out the sounds of this busy urban activity.
This concert was presented by Camarada on October 27, 2022, at UC San Diego Park & Market, 1100 Market Street in downtown San Diego.