It is a long climb from Porto’s ancient town centre to the Escola Superior de Música e das Artes (ESMAE), the Porto Academy of Music, but the walk is wonderful. Leading from the Douro river through stairways, squares full of houses covered with traditional azuléjos, the famous blue porcelain tiles from Portugal, and small mysterious alleys. The ESMAE building has majestic flair, although here too like in other parts of town time has taken its toll. Out of one of the half-opened windows come the sounds of Brahms’ pianoquartet that blend outdoors with the cries of the first common swifts (apus apus). (van Merwijk’s favorite bird) A melancholy welcome.
Direct reason for our visit to Porto is a concert on the 7th of May of Ciudades by the ElleQuart and the ESMAE-Bigband at the ESMAE 2015 Jazz Festival. But an even more important reason is that since its foundation in 2011 the ElleQuartet has been a great advocate for Willem van Merwijk alias Guillermo Lago. This summer the young saxophone quartet will perform Ciudades again, both with the ESMAE Big Band and also with the Porto Militar Band at the SAXOPORTO Festival. At the request of the ElleQuartet Willem van Merwijk is giving masterclasses with the group this week and ESMAE invited him to give a lecture on the 8th of May on his compositions for saxophone.
At the coffee dispenser in the entrance hall we meet Tine van den Geest, alto saxophone with the ElleQuartet and the only non-portuguese member. We cannot hear those dutch roots back in her fluent portuguese conversation with the other members of the group: Rita Pereira (soprano sax), Sara Martins (tenor sax) and Susana Araújo (baritone sax). All four studied at ESMAE with Fernando Ramos, Gilberto Bernardes and Henk van Twillert, and some of them took classes in the Netherlands with Arno Bornkamp. Van den Geest came to Portugal through an Erasmus-exchange, and love kept her here. She is not regretting this move as the cultural and musical climate in Portugal is until this day – to European standards – very positive. Even here though times are changing…
‘Even when studying here at ESMAE the four of us already worked hard in music education’, Van den Geest tells us. ‘Portugal has a fantastic music education system where all students aged 10 through 15 years can have free music classes. They will then have private instrumental classes at choice, sing in a choir and attend music theory classes. A wonderful system that sustains a highly flourishing musical climate. Unfortunately the economic crisis has hit Portugal heavily and this system is now under threat. We work like crazy to keep this system alive and defend with all our heart, getting a lot of energy from that struggle too because we are aware that something really important is at stake.
Rehearsing Ciudades brings an outburst of energy. Córdoba is full of spanish ‘duende’, in Sarajevo beneath the contemplative melodies a vulcano of gathered tension is ruffling and Addis Abeba bounces and dances Portuguese-Ethiopian style. All van Merwijk has to do is point out some small details, share stories behind the different movements and also exchange a few saxophone ins and outs, especially with baritone colleague Susana Araújo. After the masterclass a few bottles get uncorked at a nearby restaurant and grilled meats and bacaloa are being served in abundant quantity. Halfway the second bottle of Douro-wine the ELLE-ladies are quite certain: ‘Willem’s music is as mediterranean as this wine. Musicians here fully understand him. And he understands us…’
© 2015 Saskia Törnqvist