a history of
dominican music
in the united states

Genre Guide: Western Classical Music

The term classical music usually refers to Western concert and sacred music dating from medieval times to the present.  Originally developing in the royal and princely courts of the nobility, classical music gained popularity among the middle classes starting in the nineteenth century.  Dominicans have contributed to the development of Western classical music both as composers and performers.  Significant Dominican composers active in the early 20th century, such as Juan Francisco García (1892-1974), Esteban Peña Morell (1894-1939), and Julio Alberto Hernández (1900-1999) used folkloric materials collected in the countryside to create chamber and orchestral works in a “Romantic nationalist” style reflecting cultural traditions particular to their home country, as composers such as Dvořák and Rimsky-Korsakov had done in Central and Eastern Europe.[1]  Later in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Dominican composers such as Manuel Simó and Miguel Pichardo used twelve-tone rows and other modernist techniques developed by their contemporaries in Europe and the United States.[2]  Many Dominican classical musicians have resided in the U.S., presenting their artistry in famed concert halls and venues, and contributing to the development of classical music in the United States. In fact, Dominican performers have been contributing to musical life in the United States since 1915, when the Dominican violinist Gabriel Del Orbe (1888-1966) performed in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Recital Hall.[3] 

In the decade that followed, the Dominican singer Eleuterio “Eduardo” Brito (1905-1946) made a major impact in the U.S. and around the world.  Born in Puerto Plata and raised by his single mother, Brito’s vocal talents were recognized already during his childhood, when he sang while shining shoes to make ends meet. As a result of economic hardship, Brito lacked opportunities to learn to read and write as a child, and he also lacked access to formal instruction in music. Despite this, he developed an artistic sensibility facilitating the brilliant execution of sophisticated classical music compositions with his sonorous baritone voice.  In 1928, Brito was contracted by the RCA Victor Company to record with Grupo Dominicano, which included Dominican composer Julio Alberto Hernández and Brito’s wife, Rosa Elena Bobadilla, an excellent singer, dancer, and actress in her own right.  Members of that group traveled to New York to record, producing fifty songs which sold prodigiously throughout Latin America. In the following years, Brito continued to record his music. Brito and Rosa Elena developed successful careers in New York, singing opera arias as well as Dominican genres such as merengue at prestigious venues such as the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Broadway’s RKO Theater, enjoying fame as well as economic success. They also toured Latin America and Europe, where they were especially well received.[4] 

“Lamento esclavo,” Eduardo Brito

A child prodigy during his childhood in Santo Domingo, violinist Carlos Piantini (1927-2010) was a founding member of the Dominican National Symphony Orchestra already at the age of 14.  He moved to Mexico in 1944, where he soon began performing with the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, under the direction of famed composer Carlos Chávez. As a member of this group, Piantini performed with some of the most important composer-conductors of the twentieth century, including Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, and Igor Stravinsky, under whose baton he played Stravinsky’s famed Rite of Spring. Piantini made his first trip to New York in 1947. He became a member of the prestigious New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1956 with which he performed for 14 years under the direction of Leonard Bernstein.  During his early years with the Philharmonic, economic necessity inspired Piantini to play Latin dance music with the charanga (or flute and violin –based) band led by his Dominican compatriot, salsa pioneer Johnny Pacheco. Piantini even recorded with his own charanga band, producing a remarkable single entitled “Piantini y su violin,” which showcases two solos by this musical master: one in a staccato (or percussive) classically-influenced style, and another in a traditional Latin jazz style.  Piantini’s artistry in Western classical music can be heard on an inspired recorded performance of J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, executed with one of the top violinists of the twentieth century, Yehudi Menuhin.[5] In 1971, Piantini began a course of study in orchestral conducting in Vienna, and during the decade that followed, developed a career as a conductor serving as Director of the Dominican National Symphony Orchestra from 1984 to 1994 and again in 2001. Piantini also worked as Director of Orchestral Studies at Florida International University for several years. His role as a trailblazer of diversity in North American classical music is underlined by the fact that, in 1963, he was the only Latino in the New York Philharmonic. 

“Piantini y su violin – Carlos Piantini”

Bach Double Violin Concerto – Yehudi Menuhin and Carlos Piantini, pt. 1

Born in 1929 in the city of Santo Domingo, Floralba del Monte began studying piano at the Dominican National Conservatory of Music in 1944, the year it was founded.  In 1952, she began a two-year course of study at the National Superior Conservatory of Music in Paris.  Del Monte, however, was already an international figure in 1949, when she gained distinction as the first Dominican to play in New York’s Carnegie Recital Hall, where she premiered Dominican composer Juan Francisco García’s “Dominican Rhapsody for Piano.” Del Monte was the first woman Dominican pianist to perform in the U.S., and the first Dominican pianist to play on an U.S. television show.  During 1950s, she performed frequently at major New York venues such as Town Hall and Kauffman Auditorium, in addition to making radio and television broadcasts on NBC, CBS, and other stations.  She returned to the Dominican Republic in 1959, where she taught piano and became Director of the National Conservatory of Music. In recognition of her accomplishments, Congressman Charles Rangel commemorated Floralba del Monte in a speech presented to the U.S. Congress on the occasion of Floralba del Monte’s 75th birthday, calling her the "First Lady of Dominican Classical Music."[7]

Born 1918 in La Vega, Mrs. Tilsia Brens (1918-2009) studied piano at the Dominican National Conservatory and moved to New York in 1950. During her early years in the U.S., Mrs. Brens worked in a clothing factory to make ends meet while continuing her music studies. She also taught piano privately.  With time, Brens became a full-time piano teacher, which allowed her to work on fulfilling her dream, which was to found an organization dedicated to promoting Dominican classical music in the United States.  Mrs. Brens eventually succeeded, founding the Association of Dominican Classical Artists (ADCA) in 1979.[8]  At that time, an ADCA member explained that since “wonderful popular musicians have taken our merengue to new heights, classical artists should not be left behind.”[9] Starting in 1980, ADCA organized concerts featuring Dominican classical musicians every year at New York’s most prominent venues, including Carnegie Recital Hall, Merkin Hall, and Town Hall.  Mrs. Brens’ formidable legacy was commemorated after her passing on 2009, when ADCA and the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute presented a concert in her honor. The event featured younger classical musicians of Dominican descent, including pianist Angelina Tallaj. 

After Mrs. Brens’ passing, harpist Adán Vásquez became President of ADCA. Born in 1969 in Santo Domingo, he studied at the Dominican National Conservatory of Music and later in Chile. He moved to New York in 1991, where he studied at the Brooklyn College Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music.[10] Vásquez opted to change ADCA’s stress on the traditional European classical music repertoire, and on venues located in downtown Manhattan, instead focusing on developing classical music in the working-class Dominican community and among communities of color generally. 

Starting in 2013, with the backing from New York City Council, the Honorable Ydanis Rodriguez, and the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, the Association started presenting concerts at City College’s Aaron Davis Hall, which is located in Harlem. ADCA also founded a music school, the Washington Heights Community Conservatory of Fine Arts, which offers free instruction in “an inclusive culturally sensitive environment founded on the belief that instruction in the arts strengthen academic performance and transforms the lives of children regardless of socioeconomic background,” as their web site states.[11] ADCA also founded a chamber orchestra, La Camerata de Washington Heights, whose members teach at the Washington Heights Community Conservatory. The orchestra presents four concerts a year. One or two focus on canonic European composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, while the others focus on Dominican and other Latin American music. Significantly, the orchestra is comprised predominantly of Latinas/Latinos/Latinx, African Americans, and other women representing a variety of ethnicities. These groups continue to be under-represented in the nation’s major orchestras. Mr. Vásquez asserts that these musicians serve as models for children of color: he wants young Latinos to “see a harpist that looks like them.  If I take my students to Carnegie Hall, the musicians don’t look like our students.  We want to make this music more accessible – so they’d say: ‘I could be the one playing the cello!’”[12]  Well attended by people of all ages, ADCA’s concerts have breathed new life into the Dominican community. Indeed, through its commitment to diversity, ADCA has played a significant role in the general development of classical music in New York City. 

Suite Macorix | ADCA Symphony Orchestra

Born in San Francisco de Macoris, Rita Simo studied piano at the Dominican National Conservatory. After moving to New York City, she continued her studies at the Julliard School of Music. Joining the Sinsinawa Dominican religious order, she became a Roman Catholic nun at the age of 24, and earned her doctorate in music at Boston University. In 1976, however, Simo left the religious order to found the People’s Music School in Chicago Illinois. In an interview, she rhetorically asked: “why should people be penalized for being poor?...Why shouldn’t poor people be able to develop their talent the same as everyone else?”[13] The People’s Music School focuses on economically disadvantaged immigrant communities, offering free instruction. Initially established with only a $625 donation, the school struggled during its early years, but in 1995 it moved into a $1.5 million two-story building with ten practice rooms, a library, and two performance spaces. In 2005, Simo was awarded the Montblanc de la Culture award, which honors individuals who contribute to the arts; previous awardees include writer Susan Sontag and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.[14] 

Historically, classical music has been consumed primarily by affluent, middle-aged Caucasians in the United States.[15]  Moreover, symphony orchestras in the U.S. are woefully lacking in racial diversity: in 2014, for example, only 2.5 percent of orchestral musicians in the U.S. were Latinos, and only 1.8 percent were African-American.[16]  In an article entitled “Diversity Will Save Classical Music, and It Starts with Music Education,” the prominent music educator Fred Bronstein, Dean of the Peabody Institute, argues that, in order to remain relevant in today’s world, orchestras and audiences must reach out to communities of color.  Dominicans have been on the vanguard of the diversification of classical music in the U.S. since the early twentieth century, when Eduardo and Rosa Elena Brito made a sensation among New York socialites.  For years, Carlos Piantini held fort as the only Latino member of the New York Philharmonic. Later, Tilsa Brens and Adán Vásquez’s visionary initiatives with the Association of Dominican Classical Artists breathed new life into the classical music scene in New York City, but what is perhaps even more impressive and worthy of studying in-depth, is that while the consumption of classical music is on decline all over the world including the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, classical music is on the rise in the New York City Dominican community. ADCA’s concerts count on a full house audience that is evidently composed predominately of black and brown peoples who come from humble economic backgrounds. This is to say that in addition to enhancing Dominican cultural legacy, passing it on to younger generations, the practicing of Dominican classical music has enriched and sustained simultaneously cultural life in the United States in general.

[1] García, Juan Francisco. Panorama de la música dominicana. Santo Domingo: Secretaría del Estado de Educación y Bellas Artes, 1947; and Sydney Hutchinson. “Dominican Republic,” Latin Music: Musicians, Genres and Themes Vol. 2, edited by Ilan Stavans. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2014.

[2] Scarfullery, Rafael. Twentieth Century Composers from the Dominican Republic: An Overview and Analysis of the Guitar Music of Luis Cernuda, Pedro Holguin-Veras, Manuel Simó, and Miguel Pichardo. 2004, Shenandoah University, Ph.D. Dissertation, 12-15.

[3] "Gabriel Del Orbe, Violinist, Plays." New York Times, Nov 25, 1915, 13. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/97664614?accountid=9967. Accessed 2 January, 2020;  Antonio Gómez Sotolongo. "Gabriel Del Orbe." El Tren de Yaguaramas, 17 November 2008,https://eltrendeyaguaramas2epoca.blogspot.com/2008/05/gabriel-del-orbe-un-genio-antillano-del.html. Accessed 2 January, 2020.

[4] Roberts Hernández, Wilson. Eduardo Brito, 1905-1946. Santo Domingo: Ediciones de Taller, 1986, 55; Incháustegui, Arístides. Por amor al arte: Notas sobre música, compositores e intérpretes dominicanos. Santo Domingo: Secretaría de Estado de Educación, Bellas Artes, y Cultos, 1995, 89-98; El álbum de Eduardo Brito. Santo Domingo: Secretaría del Estado de Bellas Artes y Cultos, 1994.

[5] “Piantini y su violin – Carlos Piantini.” YouTube, uploaded by Benjamin Vargas, 1 November  2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hzjeob1lXI0&ab_channel=BenjaminVargas; "Bach Double Violin Concerto – Yehudi Menuhin and Carlos Piantini, pt. 1." YouTube, uploaded by Frank Piantini, 25 April 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQ8DiGsFQQc.   

[6] Gómez Sotolongo, Antonio.  Los sonidos y el tiempo: Las memorias de Carlos Piantini (primera parte). Santo Domingo: s.n., 2010; “Ha muerto Carlos Piantini.” YouTube, uploaded by Tonysotolongobass, 20 April 2010 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxFLSQ40o4I

[7] Rivera, Severo. “Fallece la pianista Floralba del Monte, ex directora del Conservatorio Nacional.” Diario Libre, 21 July 2017, https://www.diariolibre.com/revista/fallece-la-pianista-floralba-del-monte-ex-directora-del-conservatorio-nacional-AH7678121. Accessed 2 January 2020; Rangel, Charlie. “Floralba Del Monte First Lady of Dominican Classical Music- A Salute on her 75th Birthday.” Votesmart.org, 24 February 2004, https://votesmart.org/public-statement/45862/floralba-del-monte-first-lady-of-dominican-classical-music-a-salute-on-her-75th-birthday#.XfJ14ehKiUk. Accessed 2 January 2020; An Evening Honoring Dominican Concert Pianist & Music Educator Floralba Del Monte for a Lifetime of Commitment to Dominican Music. CUNY Dominican Studies Institute and the Department of Music of the City College of New York, Shepard Concert Hall, The City College of New York, March 2, 2007.

[8] Tejada Cruz, Manuel. “Grave en su residencia de Manhattan destacada pianista dominicana Tilsia Brens.” Diario Libre, 18 March 2009, https://www.diariolibre.com/revista/grave-en-su-residencia-de-manhattan-destacada-pianista-dominicana-tilsia-brens-DADL192625. Accessed 10 January 2020; Memorial Tribute Concert: Tilsia Brens (1918-2009), Founder and First President, The Association of Dominican Classical Artists, Inc.  ADCA, Shepard Concert Hall, The City College of New York, December 17, 2010.

[9] Atanay, Reginaldo.  “Bohio dominicano,” El Diario / La Prensa, April 17, 1980, 12. 

[10]  “Adán Vásquez.” Dominican Blue Book. New York: CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, 2015. https://www.ccny.cuny.edu/dsi/dominican-blue-book-adan-vasquez. Accessed 2 January, 2020.

[11] “ADCA.” https://www.adca.nyc/. Accessed 10 January, 2020. 

[12] “The Association of Dominican Classical Artists Presents a Night of Dominican Folklore with Ivan Dominguez,” Harlem Trends, February 9, 2012, http://harlemtrends.com/2012/02/the-association-of-dominican-classical-artists-presents-a-night-of-dominican-folklore-with-ivan-dominguez/ . Accessed 11 December 2019.

[13] “Even the Poor Make Music at Sister Rita Simo’s School.” The Journal Herald Advertising Supplement, 18 August, 1978, 2.

[14] Mann, Herbert G. “Giving the Gift of Music: Music School Offers Tuition-free Instruction.” The Berkshire Eagle, May 3, 2005; “The Peoples Music School.” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2019.

[15] Bronstein, Fred, “Diversity Will Save Classical Music, and it Starts with Music Education,” Insight into Diversity, https://www.insightintodiversity.com/diversity-will-save-classical-music-and-it-starts-with-music-education/. Accessed 2 January 2020. 

[16] Cooper, Michael, “Best of 2019: Music Seeking Orchestras in Tune with their Diverse Communities.” The New York Times, April 18, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/arts/music/symphony-orchestra-diversity.html. Accessed 2 January 2020.