STORY WRITTEN BY JOE BARRON
When Iris came to the United States from Cuba in 2002, she was 22 years old and spoke little English. Stuck, as she likes to say, “in the middle of nowhere” ― that is, in Lancaster― she missed Havana, where she could visit the beach every morning and practice her piano for the rest of the day. Yet her mother insisted she leave, in the hope of a more prosperous life.
“My mom said she wanted a future for me,” Blanco recalled in an interview Jan. 6 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Devon. “I didn’t want to come. I cried for two years.”
Pennsylvania was one of three places in the States where the government would resettle refugees, Blanco said. She also had a choice of Miami and Kentucky, but she rejected Miami out of hand, reasoning that it would give her no incentive to learn English, and decided on Lancaster because of its proximity to Philadelphia, and the music program at Temple University.
Fifteen years later, she holds degrees from both Temple and West Chester University and works as music director of St. John’s, where, in addition to playing the organ and leading the choir, she has organized a monthly series of free public concerts.
There is a phrase in Spanish that is always in the back of Blanco’s mind ― “por amor a la música,” which means “for love of music” ― and if the exact words did not inspire her concert series at St. John’s, the attitude behind them certainly did. The church makes no money on the Sunday afternoon programs, and the many friends Blanco asks to perform with her don’t make much, but they come when she asks, solely for the love of music.
“You know how many times I play for free?” she asked. “We do love what we do. I always love to give back to the community. It also brings people together. We’ve met so many people. They all come for the music.”
Attendance at the Sunday afternoon recitals has been growing since the series began in October, Blanco said. Her goal is to appeal to as many kinds of listeners as possible, and to that end, each program has a different theme. The next concert, on Sunday, Jan. 29, is titled “An American Trio” and will feature the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” Blanco will be joined by a violin-cello duo that goes by the name of the Harvey Sisters ― Myanna and Cassia ― and mezzo-soprano Lara Kennedy, who is also the church administrator at St. John’s.
Like Blanco, Kennedy is a graduate of West Chester University, where she studied American musical history. One of the truisms of that history is that Porter was a more sophisticated lyricist than Ira Gershwin, who wrote the words for his brother George. Another is that George was the better melodist ― indeed, that he is the American melodist par excellence. In working through the songs of both composers, however, Kennedy discovered a surprising sophistication in Porter’s music as well.
“I was raised on Gershwin, but I’ve fallen in love with Cole Porter,” she said. “I think Porter has more of a story to tell in his music than Gershwin does. Porter is unexpected. He goes places we’re not used to.”
Blanco has been accompanying sopranos since she was a girl, and in her view, Kennedy’s voice is perfectly suited to the Great American Songbook.
“She can do anything,” Blanco said. “Her voice is rich. She can do anything, and not every singer can do that, for sure.”
The suite from “West Side Story” will be entirely instrumental, with flutist Amanda Heckman travelling up from Baltimore to take the lead on “America.” Heckman will also perform Gershwin’s “Rialto Ripples,” and pianist Olga Valiente, a mentor whom Blanco thinks of as a second mother, will play Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano.