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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Concert Review: The Beautiful South

Spanish Nights at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
El Sombrero de Tres Picos by Salvador Dalí.  Image © 1945 Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí
In writing classical music reviews, the general practice is to see the first performance of a particular concert program in order to hear the works on offer and thus inform readership of the quality (or lack therein) of the performance. However, due to health issues this weekend, I wound up attending Tuesday night's performance of the New York Philharmonic's Spanish Nights program, an engaging evening of music inspired by the Iberian peninsula under the baton of Bramwell Tovey.

Mr. Tovey is the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, an engaging British conductor who is also a first-rate pianist. He opened the concert with a microphone in hand, giving the audience pertinent information about the ballet music from Massenet's masterful but forgotten opera Le Cid and Nights in the Gardens of Spain, the first of two works by Manuel de Falla programmed in this concert. The British conductor displayed musical acumen and dry wit as he interlaced his commentary with a few well-placed shots at certain political figures, drawing laughter and approval from the audience.

The concert opened with the aforementioned ballet music: a set of arrangements of traditional Spanish dances spiced with Massenet's ear for orchestral color, sweet, memorable melody and local flavor. Most memorable here, a slow dance that emerged as a duet and duel for the unlikely pair of flute and English horn, and the bookending movements that sprang to life with vibrant rhythms and a sense of the local music that inspired the composer.

Next, the orchestra was joined by pianist Joyce Yang for Nights in the Gardens of Spain, a Spanish answer to the Impressionist works of Debussy. Like La Mer this is a set of three ornate orchestral post-cards, where the pianist becomes not so much a solo instrument as an integral part of the huge, colorful ensemble. Glittering sonorities emerged in the opening movement, as Mr. Tovey brought dark, rustling colors out in the violins, answered by strummed violas, cellos and basses that evoked the sound of guitars.

Ms. Yang's nimble fingers kept pace with the orchestra in the unfurling second movement. Marked A Distant Dance, this movement required careful muting from Mr. Tovey as he maintained the illusion that the sounds made by the orchestra were in fact coming from far away. The final movement whirls and turns with a hint of North African rhythms and the history of Spain under Moorish rule, with the piano and woodwinds adding exotic seasoning ti this rich and satisfying orchestral dish.

Mr. Tovey offered another long introduction for the second part of the evening, a performance of the ballet score The Three-Cornered Hat. He explained the plot of the ballet: the titular hat belongs to the corregidor, sleazy magistrate of a small Andalusian village who seeks to molest the virtuous wife of the local miller. Eventually, the corregidor (represented by the solo bassoon part) has his plans thwarted as Falstaff-like, he lands spluttering in the river and is then beaten up and arrested.

This performance, with mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez in the part of a village woman who sings out a warning to her fellow residents--a part sort of like the Night Watchman in Act II of Die Meistersinger--was an excellent argument for more performances of this colorful score. From the creaking-gate solo violin of Sheryl Staples to the pounding, pompous timpani of Markus Rhoten, the diverse soloists of this orchestra came together in a rich portrait of village life. The warmth and good humor of this score came out in this uplifting performance, an evening that showed what the Philharmonic is really capable of when they are in their proverbial groove.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.