Burlington-born soprano Sarah Cullins and her classical-guitarist husband from Colombia, Daniel Gaviria, formed the Latin American duo 8 Cuerdas after moving to Burlington last year. The couple left behind successful careers in Bogotà as soloists and chamber musicians for what they expected to be a comparatively limited classical music scene in Vermont.
Instead, they couldn't be busier. Compared with Colombia, "This is much more of an interested market" for the pair's repertory of 20th-century classical Latin American and Spanish songs, says an animated Cullins. She and Gaviria are sitting in the soprano's teaching studio at Spark Arts in Burlington, taking turns entertaining their 3-year-old son on the piano and with a handheld screen.
8 (Ocho) Cuerdas — named for the combined number of cuerdas, or strings, on Gaviria's guitar and in Cullins' voicebox — has appeared at Burlington's First Night and the Cathedral Arts series at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Burlington, among other venues, performing folk-inflected songs by Colombian, Venezuelan, Argentinian, Brazilian and Cuban composers.
For a recent appearance in the Stowe Performing Arts series, the duo added works by Spanish composers, including collaborations of nationalistic composer Manuel de Falla and Spanish Civil War poet-martyr Federico García Lorca. 8 Cuerdas will reprise that program at their next engagement, a Salisbury Summer Performance Series concert in the town's Congregational Church, not far from Lake Dunmore.
The couple says the Latin American songs have been a pleasant surprise for audiences, who come expecting something more like pop or salsa. That more familiar music is "very big — fun, loud, with maracas," says ponytailed Gaviria, gesturing with long, perfectly rounded right-hand nails. "It's interesting to hear from people that we're bringing the other face of Latin America. We're changing people's conceptions."
Cullins adds that Spanish guitar music is "something we've all heard." And though the duo performs mostly contemporary songs, they're not "squeak-squawk," she promises. Far from it; in YouTube videos, Cullins' voice is sinuous and expressive, Gaviria's rhythms shaped by captivating pauses.
Audiences who heard Cullins sing in June in the Opera Company of Middlebury's hilarious production of Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers already have had a taste of the soprano's smooth legato (not to mention her perfect comic timing). Cullins earned a professional studies degree at Mannes College the New School for Music in New York City before moving to Bogotà for 10 years. While there, she won Colombia's national voice competition and created a new voice department at Central University.
Back home, she has sung as a soloist with the Oriana Singers, the Vermont Summer Music Festival and the Vermont Youth Orchestra, and she teaches voice at the University of Vermont and Johnson State College.
For those unused to hearing an opera-trained voice sing Latin American music, Cullins points out that the tradition goes back to the Baroque church music that Spanish missionaries brought over in the 17th century.
Nevertheless, the couple often chooses to stray from classical's "more strict interpretive line," says Cullins. The duo's interests extend to jazz, flamenco and Latin folk music. And Gaviria, a fan of heavy metal who also plays electrical guitar, won Bogotà Has Talent with his electroacoustic guitar trio Vitart, among other competitions.
"We'll be in our classical mindset and we'll think, That doesn't sound right," says Cullins of their interpretive process. "Then Daniel will try a different strum or bring out more flamenco rhythm."
Salisbury Summer Performance Series organizer Glenn Andres looks forward to hearing the duo in the 150-seat church, which has excellent acoustics. "I love getting in good vocalists. They sound fabulous in there," Andres says. "And classical guitar needs to be in an acoustic setting."
A specialist in Vermont architecture — the Middlebury professor cowrote the recently published Buildings of Vermont — Andres initiated the free concert series 35 years ago to celebrate the church's 150th anniversary. Now the steeple of the 1839 Greek Revival structure, which Andres is "absolutely convinced" was designed by Vermont Statehouse architect Ammi B. Young, needs refurbishing. The project will cost $130,000; the church has raised half through grants.
The music series' donation fish bowls aren't likely to add much to that fund. Its free admission policy allows local farm folks and children, among others, to enjoy quality music, Andres notes. And a summer night of Spanish and Latin American songs promises particular enjoyment. Says Andres, "I think this is going to be kind of special for us."