The Kennedy Center is showcasing the music, dance and arts of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking peoples in a festival this March, aptly named ‘Iberian Suite: Global Arts Remix’. Tonight’s performance displayed a colorful fan of eclectic traditions.

Jesús López-Cobos © Javiér del Real
Jesús López-Cobos
© Javiér del Real

Cristóbol Halffter’s Tiento del primer tono y batalla imperial (1986) is music at its most allusive. Referring back to a Spanish Renaissance organ fantasy (de Carbezón’s Tiento) and to a Baroque battle-piece (Cabanilles’ Batalla, also for organ), as well as to its Swiss dedicatee (patron Paul Sacher’s name is transcribed into musical terms in the heart of the score), Halffter wanted to convey both festivity and gravitas. The orchestra, under the baton of Jesús López-Cobos succeeded in providing ample amounts of both. There were stately strings, all ancien-regime courtliness; later, bright brasses and percussion in the imperial march harken back to a cheery pre-1914 military sensibility. But the modernist twists were there too, some truly magnificently rendered dissonances, which sounded, at the climax, positively dangerous. Neither Halffter nor López-Cobos were afraid to play with past and present, and with our expectations: the result was properly disarming.

In a post-Said generation, it is easy to be skeptical about late 19th-century musical representation of Hispano-Arabic culture, but theory aside, Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain are truly gorgeous impressionistic evocations of Andalucía, written wistfully from Paris. Neither concerto nor tone poem, it is a one-of-a-kind triptych for piano and orchestra. This is no time for virtuosic self-indulgence and Javier Perianes understood this fully, signaling from his body language turned toward the orchestra at the beginning that he was part of and not apart from them. Together, they evoked the gardens of the Generalife of the Alhambra, all rippling sinuosity; then a distant dance, mood swinging from foot-tapping fierceness to lyricism with great economy of form. Finally, the piano itself as Gypsy singer and orchestra as crowd urged each other on to passionate intensity. There was no stinting on passion in this rendition.

The celebrated fifth movement from the Heitor Villa-Lobos’ suite Bachianas Brasileras came next. “Natural, like a waterfall” was how the Brazilian described his own oeuvre, and Juanita Lascarro’s soprano had the requisite porous fullness set off against eight cellos. Particularly lovely were her long-spun phrases in the Aria/Cantilena, an elegant homage to Villa-Lobos’ musical hero, Bach. Lascarro’s voice was perhaps a little too ‘operatic’ for the folk-inspired Dança /Martelo: the populist idiom was lacking.

The unexpected dramatic highlight of the evening (reprogrammed because of weather at the loss of Albéniz’s Iberia) was the Portuguese Fado singer, Carminho. The Fado tradition (meaning fate) of which she is a notable exemplar comes from a humble place, socially and historically. “A speech from the heart” she told us, a tradition as foreign to elite classicism as it is possible to be, something that she conveyed in her impromptu addresses between songs, and which was patent from the wry presence of her musicians, playing Portuguese guitar, viola de fado and viola baxo, foil to both fadista and orchestra. But there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to the dominant presence. The classically-trained orchestra handled the slightly gimmicky juxtaposition just about adequately, but all eyes – and ears – were, in any case, riveted on Carminho.

Expressing the profound ‘saudade’ (aching sense of irremediable loss) characteristic of the tradition, her voice (amplified) was an extraordinary instrument for emotional embodiment with the right edge of visceral hoarseness. Such was the depth of her desolation that she looked, as well as sounded, as if in physical pain. There is always more life in such grief than there is death, and the underlying vocal steeliness was magnificent.

The livelier numbers were joyous affairs: having her audience in the palm of her hand, she even had them clapping along, although, being a classical audience, they were divided between enthusiasm for her and fear of subverting usual protocol by getting too carried away. Fado is on the list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural assets: there is no better praise than to say that she made the intangible almost tangible.

It was difficult to follow Carminho – in retrospect, the ordering could have been reconsidered – but the earlier re-imagining of Spanish traditions into orchestral form was echoed in Turina’s Danzas fantasticas. In Spain, said Cervantes, the newborn baby comes dancing forth from its mother’s womb and one certainly got that sense here. Alluding to a now obscure novella, the work’s three movements conjure up different dance forms: Exaltation the Aragonese Jota; Fantasy, the Basque Zortziko, and Orgy, the Andalucian Farruca. Despite some weaknesses, there was command of tone colour and rhythm, the shifting moods of carefree festivity, world-sorrow, sensual delight, and gypsy freedom. The last orgy “full of wine, incomparable as incense” showcased the almost sacral joy of the Dance. 

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