de Falla concerto makes worthy opener for Beyond Flamenco festival

Fri Mar 05, 2010 at 3:06 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Few of us go to concerts to hear the same old things. Even if we know the music so well that we could sing along, we still hope to hear something fresh and new in a live performance.

That sense of discovery was especially satisfying during the opening concert Thursday of a three-day “Beyond Flamenco” project running through Saturday at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall. The major revelation of Thursday’s concert was a concerto for keyboard, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin and cello by Manuel de Falla dating from 1926.

De Falla is one of Spain’s most well-known composers, and some of his works, such as the ebullient ballet Three-Cornered Hat, are concert-hall staples. But his relatively unknown concerto, with its astringent harmonies and often harsh rhythmic drive, revealed another side of a composer we identify with more relaxed, tuneful music.

Organized by music historian and concert programmer Joseph Horowitz and Spanish novelist Antonio Munoz-Molina, the concert series is designed to go beyond what the two call “postcard stereotypes” of Spain. Most of us see Spain as the land of Carmen, bull fighting and flamenco, they said in brief remarks during the program. Their aim is to offer a taste of a more serious, intellectually engaged Spain.

Thursday’s program combined music by Falla with performances of the Spanish religious, popular and classic music that influenced him. The combination of music, poetry and commentary was fast-paced and tightly focused, opening with de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, a showy solo piano piece whose gaudy colors and propulsive rhythms epitomize the stereotype of exotic Spain.  But Pedro Carbone played it with almost angry clarity, sharply etching every last one of its melodic swirls and lavish decoration rather than letting them race past in an incendiary blur.

The evening’s masterstroke was scheduling the 13-minute Falla concerto twice. Before the first performance, Horowitz and Munoz-Molina discussed it briefly, describing it as a work from the modernist era that included Stravinsky and Picasso. It returned to close the evening.

In between came a fascinating array of music and poetry, an overview of composers, writers and forms that influenced Falla. They ranged from 13th century liturgical chant and Renaissance motets to folk-influenced, 20th century solo songs by Joaquin Rodrigo. Performers were the university’s expressive Motet Choir and Amy Conn, a soprano with bright, sparkling tone, accompanied by pianist Shannon McGinnis. An intimate poem of religious ecstasy by St. John of the Cross also was part of the mix. Carbone tossed off three 18th century piano sonatas that brought to mind the prickly high spirits of Scarlatti’s harpsichord music.

Falla’s austere yet passionate concerto was in excellent hands. In addition to Carbone on piano, the performers were Dionne Jackson, flute; Jelena Dirks, oboe; Larry Combs, clarinet; Jasmin Lin, violin, and Stephen Balderston, cello. Gil-Ordonez conducted.

The tonal balance between Carbone’s forceful piano and the other five instruments was expertly handled. We had a sense of six soloists in constant, passionate conversation, their robust voices coming and going with ease. The piano’s emphatic, undulating arpeggios and the fierce slashes of Lin’s violin gave the first movement exuberant ferocity. The second movement was more solemn and grandly scaled. Incorporating fragments of the familiar liturgical chant “Pange lingua gloriosi,” it unfurled with the heroic sweep of a papal religious procession. Despite the dissonances that spiced the entire concerto, the final movement was merry and brimming with dancing rhythms.

Hearing it once was a pleasure. Hearing it twice was a revelation.

At 7:30 Friday,pianist Pedro Carbone will play all four books of Isaac Albeniz’s Iberia, a major work rarely performed in one evening. The series closes at 8 p.m. Saturday with dances and other pieces by Falla, Joaquin Turina and Jesus Guridi. Carbone will be soloist with U of C’s University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez.

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