Adán Vásquez is a versatile and much-acclaimed musician who has gained renown for his artistry on the harp both as a soloist and as an ensemble player. Equally at ease in the traditional and contemporary repertoires, Vásquez has won accolades for his expertise in the physically demanding Salzedo harp technique. He began his musical studies at an early age in the National Conservatory of Music in his native Dominican Republic where he studied with Mirla Salazar. In 1989, he was awarded a prestigious scholarship by the Dominican government and moved to Chile to study with concert harpist Manuel Jimenez at the Facultad de Artes at the University of Chile. Later, he relocated to New York City where he completed his B.A. at Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music and studied with the well-known harpist Sara Cutler. Shortly thereafter, he received an M.A. from the Manhattan School of Music where he continued advanced studies under the renowned harpist Lucile Lawrence.
Vásquez has appeared as a guest harpist with numerous symphony orchestras including the National Symphony Orchestra of Chile, the Dominican National Symphony Orchestra, and the Brooklyn Heights Symphony Orchestra in New York. In 2004, he was invited to participate in the First International Harp Festival of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where he also lectured and conducted Master Classes on the Salzedo technique. Vásquez has also premiered works especially commissioned for him by contemporary composers such as William Dickerson, Gary Heckard, and Eugenio Escobar. He has a deep commitment to the neighborhood of Washington Heights, where he serves on the faculty of Gregorio Luperón High School as Music Department Coordinator. Since 2009, he has served as artistic director and president of the Association of Dominican Classical Artists, Inc., the Washington Heights Community Conservatory, and the Camerata Washington Heights.
At Vásquez's request, we talked on the phone at five o'clock in the morning, apparently the only free moment in his day. He happily shared memories of his Dominican childhood. "When I was growing up, going to the countryside, my grandma was the queen of the palos. There was always this pride in our African roots. She always told me about that. I was able to trace it back to slavery. When I went to Chile in 1989 on a scholarship I went down to her house and had a talk with her about that history. So I was always very clear on the artistic value of that heritage. I believe that my musical abilities and that sense of perspective have to do with knowing where I came from."
Vásquez is the youngest of eight children. He feels a debt of gratitude to his parents for nurturing his pursuit of his art and encouraging him to think independently. "My father was always listening to classical music and reading politics. My parents were leftist-oriented and believed in allowing kids freedom of thought. They didn't follow religion or any specific political party. I would say that that type of freedom allowed me to go to the conservatory and have support from my parents. They didn't oppose it. They nurtured it. And I could be whatever I wanted to be. There was some pressure in that it was implicit that you had to get a college degree. It was part of the family culture, in that all my brothers and sisters had gone to college. That was the legacy. This is how we see life. This is what I try to teach my students. I wish my students would understand that. They think getting a job and money is important and don't see the long term."
I ask Vásquez about the Salzedo technique. "Carlos Salzedo was a French harpist who graduated from the Paris Conservatory. He graduated and came over to the US. My harp teacher, who came from New Orleans, was his second wife. She died when she was 98, so I got to work with her. They married in 1928. She was his student and a real virtuoso. She taught at the Curtis Institute of Music. Together they created this way of playing where you relax completely. They worked with the famous dancer from the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky. With him, my teacher and Salzedo developed a way of playing in a position that's totally relaxed and also visually looks like you are dancing, like ballet. They also changed the language of writing for harp. They kind of made a revolution, taking it into a more modern stage. My teacher, Lucile Lawrence, worked with him, in a collaboration. She was very important in creating that technique. I had the opportunity to work with that woman, and I was one of her last students before she died."
I ask about Vásquez's favorite orchestra to work with. "The National Symphony Orchestra of Chile. The quality, the level, the musicality, the repertoire is amazing. I was there last month. We were doing Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra. I may go back next summer. I worked with my former teacher from Chile. The way they work is almost like a master class. The hours are long. You're not only playing the music but learning an interpretation. As a Latino, it makes me proud. What I like the most is that 90% of the members are from Chile. The Chilean Symphony Orchestra value their national musicians."
When I ask what aspects of his work he finds most rewarding, Vásquez is unequivocal in his reply. "Teaching. My harp students—to see them grow, musically speaking, and to try to transfer the knowledge I have from my teacher to these students so the memories are alive. I go to the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Chile and try to spread the word about the technique I learned from my teacher so I don't keep it as a secret." Reflecting, he adds, "And also playing-- playing, with the correct position, those pieces that make the harp such a great instrument. That gives me great satisfaction."
Vásquez offers the following advice to young aspiring musicians or those considering pursuing a career in the arts: "Pursue your dreams. In this career you will have many people saying 'No, you can't,' but if you know what you want, keep going. You will find a way. Try to be the best of yourself. Meaning, instead of trying to be better than somebody else. Be the best of yourself. The way I play will never be the same as the way you play the same piece—just like with painting a landscape. The two are different, but both have value. Look for the best of yourself, and don't give up."
On November 13, Vásquez is playing with an orchestra of Latino musicians at the Gala Opening Concert of the Fifth Concert Series: A Celebration of Dominican Classical Composers and Musicians, "Una Noche Barroca," featuring a Handel concerto. On November 28, he plays in the Dominican Republic. "I am going to be traveling there once a month, every vacation I have, this month at Thanksgiving to teach at the National Conservatory and the Elementary School of Music." In February, Vásquez will play as soloist with the orchestra of Rio de Janeiro at the University of Rio de Janeiro.
Those unable to attend concerts outside the New York metropolitan area should take heart, since the next concert in the Fifth Concert Series will feature traditional Dominican folk music. "We have to keep that alive," Vásquez says. In April and May, the series will feature homages to Dominican composers. "I'm trying to celebrate either Dominican composers or Dominican performers," Vásquez clarifies. "To show Dominican classical artists in New York."
Asked if he composes, Vásquez says that he has many ideas for composing, but doesn't have the time to pursue them. "I only have time to practice and to teach. I also opened a music school for the community. A conservatory for free, to teach members of the community."
Finally, I ask about his favourite pieces to play. "Ravel's Introduction and Allegro. It's a very challenging piece that he wrote for a company that was making a new harp in 1907. One company, Pleyel, asked Debussy to write a piece to show their new harp. The other company, Érard, asked Ravel to write another piece for them. Now both pieces are played on the Érard harp, so that one won." Vásquez admits that another personal favorite is Debussy's Trio for Flute, Viola, and Harp.
It's inspiring to hear that Vásquez still has a sense of wonder about the harp. It comes through vividly when he tells me about the first time he played. "I went to a Catholic nuns' school in the Dominican Republic. We were always doing singing, we had musical activities for Christmas, Mother's Day. One of the nuns would play the piano. Me and some friends from school decided to go to music school when we were eleven or twelve years old. I was walking through the conservatory. I was very curious and heard the harp and saw a woman teaching—her name was Mirla Salazar. I was amazed looking through the window. She saw me and asked if I wanted to walk in and when she finished, she asked, 'Do you like it?' I said, 'Oh my God.' She said, 'Do you want to try?' I said, 'Sure.' She got me doing the glissando. She asked 'Wanna learn?' I said, 'Sure.' I got trapped in the magic of the harp."