WASHINGTON, March 14, 2015 – In keeping with the Kennedy Center’s ongoing Iberian festival, which primarily highlights the performing arts of Spain and Portugal, the National Symphony Orchestra’s latest series concerts this past weekend celebrated the music of Spain. As re-imagined by a quartet of French composers. It was an inspired choice.
For some reason—perhaps because they share a border—any number of French composers have found plenty of musical inspiration south of their own border, creating an entire subset of classical compositions that brilliantly evoke the passion and spirit of that country’s southern neighbor. Perhaps the best-known musical example of this is George Bizet’s still wildly popular opera “Carmen.” To this day, I still find it passing strange to hear it sung in French rather than Spanish, but there you go.
The NSO’s latest program featured four French compositions—three well-known, the fourth slightly less so—that also reflect quite brilliantly the sound and spirit of Spain. That’s despite the fact that two of the composers on the program, Debussy and Chabrier, had barely ever set foot in that country.
Under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, the orchestra opened with Chabrier’s 1883 “España,” an enduringly popular audience favorite that also became a staple of the summer pop concert circuit over the years.
Boomers might vaguely recall having heard “España’s” lilting central refrain somewhere before, and they would be right. It was lifted by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning and turned into a popular 1956 hit tune—“Hot Diggity”—that Perry Como promptly launched into Billboard’s No. 1 position when he recorded it that year.
The NSO played Chabrier’s still-beloved original the way it was written of course, but the performance came off as somewhat studied rather than exuberant and celebratory. It was still a great way to announce this musical evening, but overall, the performance could have used a bit more snap, crackle and pop.
The remainder of Thursday evening’s performance was considerably more successful, particularly the second item on the menu, Édouard Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole” for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 21 (1874). Lalo was actually quite a good composer, but most of his works, save for this one, are rarely heard today. That’s a shame, because he was a relatively prolific composer who also produced at least one wonderful opera, “Le roi d’Ys” (“The King of Ys”) that was popular in its day.
But for better or worse, it’s Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole” that has endured, and it’s easy to see the reason. Like the other works on this program, it seems to embody once again the spirit of Spain, even if it’s served with a touch of French seasoning.
More important, it’s an awesome showpiece for a first-rate violin soloist. Last time around (2009), the NSO performed it with acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell in the solo slot. This time, in keeping with the spirit of the KenCen’s Iberian festival, the orchestra invited 30-year-old Spanish violinist Leticia Moreno to make her NSO debut in this work. It proved to be an inspired choice.
One 2014 review of Ms. Moreno in the French newspaper Le Figaro described this striking young artist perfectly:
“She has the grace of a flamenco dancer, the strength of character of an Andalucian cantaora and the smoldering gaze of one of [Spanish film director Pedro] Almodovar’s heroines. Without a doubt Spain has just found a perfect musical ambassador.”
From the moment Ms. Moreno walked onstage with Maestro Eschenbach, she set the right mood for the “Symphonie,” resplendent in a slinky scarlet and very Spanish-style gown trimmed in black with a tastefully provocative slit up the center. Not only was it attention-getting. It set the right mood for what turned out to be a very authentic performance.
Structurally, the Lalo is something of a strange bird. It really is a symphony of sorts, whose form barely conceals the fact that it’s a brilliantly colored and elaborate violin concerto. Consisting, unconventionally, of five (not four) movements, it is not constructed like a conventional symphony, but instead presents five decidedly different Spanish settings and moods.
Ms. Moreno exploited each movement, paradoxically, with fire and with considerable grace. She was clearly at ease with Lalo’s virtuosic and virtually nonstop violin part, penned specifically by the composer for a legendary Spanish violinist popular in his own time. But she also injected romance, passion and fire as well as her own lively personality into every measure of her performance.
Better yet, during her performance, she took great care to mind-meld with both Mr. Eschenbach and the NSO players, creating a fluid, elegant, exciting and nearly flawless ensemble performance of this work that served to highlight every nuance of this intriguing composition. Taken as a whole, this was simply a great performance by both the soloist and the orchestra.
The audience thought so, too, and erupted into thunderous applause at the “Symphonie’s” conclusion. It was one of two great highlights of the evening. The NSO should invite Ms. Moreno back. Soon.
The program’s second half opened with a somewhat less familiar work, Claude Debussy’s 1910 “Iberia,” the second of three suites contained in the composer’s larger “Images.” For fans of impressionistic music, this is one of Debussy’s somewhat thornier compositions, demonstrating as it does the fact that this composer was as much a modernist innovator as he was an impressionist, a term he didn’t particularly like anyway.
While tinged with Spanish flavors, Iberia’s three sections are evocative not so much of place as of mood. Its outer sections—“In the streets and byways” and “The morning of a festival day”—are clattery and combustive but also somewhat strange, seeming intent on evoking the darker forces that operate beneath joy and celebration.
The darkness here, though, is perhaps best exemplified by the slower central essay, “The fragrances of the night,” which winds its way through a sultry evening where, perhaps, furtive romances are taking place behind the garden wall.
The NSO captured all of the composer’s subtle colorations in this work, right down to its emotional core. They were at their best in the central movement. The outer movements generally went well, capturing the excitement and exoticism of the composer’s score, although on occasion the tempos seemed to wander a bit.
The program closed with a novel—and I think quite brilliant—performance of that almost-clichéd old warhorse, Maurice Ravel’s over-performed but still wonderful 1928 “Bolero.” Something of a novelty piece and initially composed for a ballet highlighting the ever more intense dancing of a fiery flamenco dancer, the “Bolero” is perhaps the greatest one-trick pony of all time.
Built on a single, persistent rhythm driven by the snare drum beating as close to pianissimo as it can get, the music itself is a single, sinuous, extended musical phrase, endlessly repeated, driving relentlessly forward with ever-escalating volume until it reaches a tumultuous, beyond fortissimo climax. Until this climax, much of the “Bolero’s” rising volume is created by adding, by ones or twos, additional instruments to the mix, much as an organist adds pipes and choirs to build a climax on that instrument.
The enduring appeal of this work—arguably the first and still the best example of “minimalist” technique—is its almost hypnotic effect, created by the repetition and the endlessly growing color of its instrumentation. In the hands of a lesser composer, this music, such as it is, would quickly become excruciatingly boring. But with the addition of that Ravel magic, “Bolero” never flags, never loses interest and still can surprise, even after many hearings.
All of which is why this weekend’s NSO performances, or at least Thursday’s, were deliciously and surprisingly different. For whatever reason, Maestro Eschenbach made the decision to spend most of his time on the podium observing, not conducting. The snare drum soloist, brought front and center and placed between the cellos and violas, drove most of the Ravel instead.
Ravel himself noted that he had been inspired to create this composition by observing the almost monotonously precise workings of modern mechanical objects. Perhaps this is what inspired Mr. Eschenbach to symbolically step aside, even while standing, arms down, on the podium, allowing the mechanical precision of the snare drummer to drive the orchestra rather than himself.
Mr. Eschenbach intervened on only one or two occasions early on, simply by giving an extended nod to one section or another, perhaps encouraging them to produce a bit more volume. He intervened only to actually conduct during the climactic closing bars of this work as it swashbuckles its way into a grand, closing but still-controlled chaos.
Even for someone numbed to the charms of “Bolero” by having heard it one or two hundred too many times, this was an astonishing and extremely exciting performance of an old popular standard.
The tendency when performing “Bolero” these days is to go nuts with wild exuberance as the volume builds to create cheap thrills. Here, it was the sheer, relentless mechanical onslaught rather than the entertainment provided by an energetic, bouncing conductor that served to create the excitement, an effect further amplified by the relentless persistence of the drummer’s driving rhythmic onslaught, unbroken to the point of madness.
The NSO’s genuinely unique performance of Ravel’s most popular work brought a satisfyingly brilliant end to a great evening of Spanish-inspired music, even if each of the works on the program happened to have been routed through the heart of Gay Paree.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)