|Celeste Golden Boyer|
What: Music of Chabrier, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Juan Carmona
Where: Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis
When: November 25 and 26, 2011
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A longer than usual Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra concert Friday night was also long on excitement. We had impressive violin technique by Second Associate Concertmaster Celeste Golden Boyer in Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, brilliant orchestral writing by Chabrier (España) and Ravel (Rhapsodie espagnole, Bolero), and visceral thrills from guitarist/composer Juan Carmona and his troupe in the North American premiere of Carmona’s Sinfonia Flamenca. The piece itself is a bit of a mixed bag, but there was no denying the vitality of the performance.
Originally composed in 2006, the Sinfonia incorporates a variety of different melodic and rhythmic flamenco traditions into a three-movement work for orchestra and solo ensemble. It is, as the composer himself acknowledges, “a risky undertaking because we’re mixing two different philosophies: the flamenco one, which is oral tradition from the grass roots, and the classical world, which is more intellectual and is written.” It also makes for a dicey acoustic mix since, at least in these performances, the flamenco musicians are amplified.
Melding such radically different approaches requires, to my way of thinking, the kind of deep knowledge of the traditional orchestra and its instruments that would allow the larger group to be integrated with the soloists. I would think that Mr. Carmona, with his Paris Conservatory training would have that knowledge, but if so he has not seen fit to employ here. As it is, the Sinfonia Flamenca uses the orchestra largely as a homogenous back-up band for Mr. Carmona and his fellow performers.
The official program lists the Carmona ensemble as follows: Juan Carmona, guitar; Paco Carmona, guitar; Domingo Patricio, flute; El Kiki, vocals; Nino de los Reyes, dancer; and Sergio Martinez, percussion. In reality, though, nearly all of them acted as percussionists at some point, given the importance of hand clapping, finger snapping, and (of course) the athletic, staccato dancing that codifies “flamenco” in the popular imagination. Mr. de los Reyes’s flashy footwork drew the most attention, but each of the six was striking in his own way. Given how hard it often was to hear Mr. Carmona and his players clearly (despite the amplification) it would have been nice to hear them perform by themselves as an encore instead of what we got, which was a repeat of a movement from the Sinfonia.
The remainder of the program was devoted to French music with a Spanish connection, opening with Emmanuel Chabrier’s infectiously cheerful España from 1883. The product of an Iberian vacation in 1882 (during which Chabrier was apparently obsessed with both Spanish music and Spanish women), España was an immense hit and a big boost for the composer’s career. Watching it performed live, I was reminded of what a skilled orchestrator Chabrier was. The music is filled with charming and witty touches as its irresistible melodies are tossed back and forth between sections. Mr. Robertson gave it a brisk but never rushed reading that allowed all the composer’s little touches to come through.
Up next was Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso for violin and orchestra. Originally written for the legendary Spanish violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate in 1863, the work’s attractive tunes and flashy writing have made it a hit with violinists and audiences ever since. As was the case last week, Mr. Robertson gave a symphony member the opportunity to step into a solo role. Second Associate Concertmaster Celeste Golden Boyer played with fierce concentration and great facility, earning a well-deserved standing ovation. As much as audiences love to see big-name soloists in front of the orchestra, it’s good to be reminded that we have world-class players in the home-town band.
Concluding both the first and second halves of the program were works by Maurice Ravel, who was born in the Basque region of France and spent much of his youth in Spain. His Rhapsodie espagnole, written in 1907 and 1908, was his first major orchestral work and, with its evocation of sultry nights, sensuous dances, and fiery festivals, demonstrates the ingenious use of instrumental color that would mark the rest of his career. The attention to detail and flexible interpretation of tempi that have served Mr. Robertson so well in the past did so here as well, delivering a performance that did full justice to the many moods of the appealing music and brought the first part of the evening to an impressive close.
Ravel’s ever-popular Bolero was the finale of the program and, really what is there to be said about it? Ravel himself apparently began to view it in somewhat the same way that Rachmaninoff came to view his equally popular “Prelude in C-sharp minor”: as a career milestone that eventually became a millstone. At least Ravel wasn’t obliged to perform it everywhere he went. It is, in any case, music that never fails to entertain, especially when the many solo passages are performed with the kind of consummate skill we got on Friday night. It generated the usually visceral excitement and sent us all home with smiles on our faces. And for that, we were all thankful.
Next at Powell Hall: December 2 through 4, Ward Stare is on the podium for Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 and the St. Louis premiere of Osvaldo Golijov’s Sidereus, with Jennifer Koh as the violin soloist for Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. For more information you may call 314-534-1700, visit stlsymphony.org, like the Saint Louis Symphony Facebook page, or follow @slso on Twitter.