BY THÉRÉSE WASSILY SABA | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

On November 16, 2017, at the 18th Annual Latin Grammy Award ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada, the great Cuban composer and conductor Leo Brouwer was awarded a trophy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for his Sonata del Decamerón Negro, performed by the young classical guitarist Mabel Millán on her first recording, Gran Recital.  Millán, who is from the town of Montilla, south of Córdoba, Spain, was in Las Vegas, in part to accept the award on Maestro Brouwer’s behalf—and also to soak up the atmosphere, of course.

“He got in contact with me before the gala because he should have been attending it,” Millán says. “I have a good friendship with Leo and with his wife, Isabelle [Hernández, an acclaimed Cuban musicologist]. I was with them in Córdoba and they asked me whether I would be going to the gala in Las Vegas and I told them I would.”

Brouwer has a strong musical link with Córdoba: He was the founder and conductor of the Orquesta de Córdoba in Spain, which he established in 1992. And although he is now living in Cuba again, his connection with both the city and the orchestra remains strong: In 2010, a youth orchestra was established in his name—La Joven Filarmonía Leo Brouwer; and in October 2017, he traveled there to conduct the 25th anniversary concert of the Orquesta de Córdoba.

Once Millán arrived in Las Vegas, she and the Brouwers “were in contact the whole time, and the first telephone call I made was to them to let them know that he won the Latin Grammy! I went to the red carpet for them.”

The Sonata del Decamerón Negro is Brouwer’s third solo sonata for guitar. The four-movement work—“Güijes y gnomos,” “Treno por Oyá,” “Burlesca del aire,” and “La risa de los griots”—is dedicated to Greek guitarist Costas Cotsiolis, who premiered the work on May 18, 2013 at the Koblenz International Guitar Festival in Germany. In Brouwer’s unique, eclectic way, the work brings together some of the important musical influences and powerful forces in his life: Cuban mythology; the Yoruban goddess of tempests and strong winds (Oyá); Afro-Cuban rhythms; the music of Luys de Milán and Francisco Tárrega; as well as his own earlier compositions, such as Danza del Altiplano from his Tres piezas latinoamericanas. The title Sonata del Decamerón Negro, is a reference to an earlier, three-movement work for solo guitar from 1981, El Decamerón Negro.

Millán admits that at the Grammy ceremony, “I didn’t have anything prepared, and when they said the name of the Sonata, I went quickly onto the stage and I was very nervous, but I remember thanking Leo Brouwer and Isabelle. Above all, though, I had to thank the guitar for all it had given me—the person it has made me today; all the traveling and getting to know people—and also for the difficult times. I have had some things that didn’t go so well, such as in competitions, but there is always some compensation—all this recognition, winning the Grammy; it is my instrument. All of this was a magnificent experience.”

Still only 24 years old, Millán already has a long list of prizes she has won for her guitar-playing over the years, including the David Russell Award for Young Talent in 2008; the First Prize and Public Prize in the 19th Concurso Internacional Fundación Jacinto e Inocencio Guerrero 2012; and a three-prize win at the 2014 Certamen Internacional de Guitarra Miguel Llobet, where she won First Prize, the Public Prize, and the prize for the Best Interpretation of a work by Llobet.


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Millán has a twin sister, Celia, a pianist with whom she often performs. I wondered how they came to choose their instruments. “My sister Celia had no doubt about wanting to play the piano. For me, I loved the guitar because it is an instrument which is very easy to carry with you wherever you go and you can use it to accompany songs, not only in the area of classical. So for me, it was the ideal instrument and I did all that I could to dedicate myself to it.”

Growing up where she did, did her interests in non-classical music include flamenco? “I love it very much,” she says. “I play Paco de Lucía’s Entre dos Aguas a lot with my sister. I love it! Paco de Lucía is someone who I have admired not only for his technical abilities but also for his music and his approach. I used to go to every concert I could to hear Paco de Lucía play—and also [flamenco guitarist] Vicente Amigo. I try to play, but I am not an expert in flamenco. I play some fandangos just by ear and some tonadillas. I play Sevillanas, which are typical of the region where we live here in Andalusia, but I don’t play flamenco professionally.” 

I ask who wrote the arrangement of Entre dos Aguas she plays with her sister. “We do our own arrangements because there is not a lot of music for guitar and piano. We can’t limit ourselves to the repertoire that already exists; we have to create things ourselves. I think it is a great thing to do with whatever music that you love, to try to arrange it.” I have heard Mabel and Celia play together in concert, and it was excellent. I was excited by their refined musicianship, their incredible closeness in articulation and long-range dynamic control; it was an unforgettable experience.

Their successful musical careers are impressive. What is even more remarkable is that alongside this, both Mabel and Celia have been studying law. Mabel explains, “It was just a path we chose as something viable for the future. As musicians, we rely a lot on our hands. And it was also to have an alternate path for earning a living. In Spain, classical music is not so valued, so we wanted to have another form of support, although music is what we like the most.”

Is it difficult to combine the two careers? “My sister is working as a lawyer now,” Mabel says, “but at the moment, instead of working as a lawyer, I am studying to become a judge. It’s complicated; it takes five years to prepare for the final assessment. You have a dedicated person who is your guide throughout this. There are three exams and a year-long assessment examination. But certainly, it does leave me freer. For example, if I have a concert coming up, I can decide that for that particular week, I won’t study—although this does put me behind in my studies a little. Now I am about to go to Colombia to give a master class and a concert, and I don’t have that pressure of having to finish work.”

With a high level of self-motivation, does she feel that she is also flying a flag for women and their potential? “I don’t know,” she replies. “I have always gone to lots of competitions and there were two or three girls and ten or 20 guys. So perhaps in this regard, when I recorded the Ponce Concerto del Sur, which had never been recorded by a woman. . . . I am also the first woman classical guitarist to have won a Latin Grammy, so I am proud. I don’t know what to call this path, but it is a shame that there is such a distinction made between men and women.” 

It’s also impressive that Millán’s Gran Recital album was just her first recording. “I recorded it in Mexico,” she says. “The guitar festival in Culiacán, in Mexico, invited me to perform there and in the following month they offered to record a CD. I really wanted to record Sonata del Decamerón Negro because it would be a premiere recording, and so that people who would study this work would have this recording as a reference. Leo Brouwer was very happy with the recording—with the interpretation that I played.”

Plans for Millán to make second recording are still waiting to be finalized. “If I make another recording, perhaps I will leave the Spanish repertoire to one side,” she comments, “a little because I think that is what people are used to hearing me perform in concert, so I would prefer the recording to give a different perspective of my work. Otherwise, they might think that I am limited to one style of repertoire. Perhaps I will record Latin American music, which I like a lot, such as the works of Barrios.

Returning to the Brouwer work, she concludes, “I used to think that I didn’t like contemporary music and that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to interpret it well. However, everything that we are interested in, we can achieve.”