The sights, sounds and scents of Spain have long presented an irresistible charm to musicians, and indeed, such a unique body of the orchestral literature is of Spanish extraction. In this week’s Chicago Symphony concerts, Charles Dutoit led the ensemble in two major scores of Manuel de Falla complemented by a pair of shorter pieces from neighboring France.

Javier Perianes © Daniel García Bruno
Javier Perianes
© Daniel García Bruno

It has often been remarked that much of the finest Spanish music comes from France, and in listening to Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso one would have little room for argument in this mesmerizing evocation of a raucous Iberian daybreak. Pizzicato strings and harp glissandi captured the rapid machine gunfire of repeated notes, though perhaps not as effectively as in the original for solo piano. Keith Buncke’s languorous bassoon solo was a highlight, but revelry won the day in the work’s fiery close.

Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain is a piece of sensuous color, and its prominent piano part was commanded by Javier Perianes. The opening “In the Generalife” depicts a particularly exotic and mystical garden, the repeated notes in the piano emulating the flamenco guitar. “Distant Dance” began with buzzing strings before the winds were given the melodic material, and Mary Sauer’s celesta made for an especially striking texture. “In the Gardens of the Sierra de Córdoba” followed attacca, with some highly coloristic playing from Perianes in the piano’s upper register. Substantial as the piano writing may be, it is treated symphonically, fully integrated into the fabric of the work. Perianes clearly had an intuitive feel for the repertoire of his home country, and after a warm ovation he returned with a solo transcription of the “Ritual Fire Dance” from the same composer’s El amor brujo – certainly an impressive way to cap off a successful CSO debut.

Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was the lone piece on the program without an obvious Spanish connection, but this too is another composer with a highly accomplished command of orchestral color as Goethe’s ballad Der Zauberlehrling is vividly brought to life. The principal wind players all shone, and worthy of mention was guest oboist Mary Lynch of the Seattle Symphony. Even the contrabassoon was used to great effect, an instrument heard infrequently and much less with any prominence. When the work’s all too familiar main theme was first presented in the bassoons, it elicited some laughter from the audience – indeed, thanks to Disney’s Fantasia, it’s difficult for modern audiences to hear this without a mental image of Mickey Mouse.

Dutoit returned to Falla in The Three-Cornered Hat, the most substantial work on program as the complete ballet score was given rather than the suites he later distilled. The introduction of trumpet fanfares and shouts of “olé” from the musicians was purportedly written so audiences at the ballet’s première would have an extra moment to admire the curtain designed by no less than Pablo Picasso. It further included a brief vocal part from mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, her classically trained voice contrasting the folk traditions of the score.

“Afternoon” began the ballet proper, its rich detailing portraying the narrative with cinematic precision – for instance, screeches in the piccolo depict the miller collecting water from a noisy wheel. “Dance of the Miller’s Wife” was a lively fandango, heightened by silvery playing from flutist Demarre McGill of the Dallas Symphony. “The Neighbors’ Dance”, based on a gypsy song, offered some contrast to much of the work’s gregariousness, seductive and atmospheric. 

As per Falla’s sparing use of the voice, Mack returned in “The Miller’s Dance”, singing of a warning cuckoo, and clarinetist John Bruce Yeh’s depiction of the bird followed suit. Judicious touches of castanets added to the refined charm of “The Corregidor’s Dance” before the rambunctious finale, based on the jota. The sheer, elemental force of the Spanish rhythms were infectious and utterly captivating, Falla transforming these folk dances into something much more cosmopolitan, and well suited to the blazing, corporate sound of the Chicago Symphony.