In a world of growing homogenization, itʼs rare to find an orchestra that retains its own distinctive sound and character. The Barcelona-based Orquestra de Cadaqués has offered that since its founding in 1988, attracting admirers like Sir Neville Marriner, who served as the ensembleʼs honorary conductor from 1992 to 2016. “Every country should have a lively, passionate orchestra like the Cadaqués,” he enthused. “The fact that it is an ensemble of Mediterranean origin with a clear cosmopolitan vision makes it a unique orchestra.”

The orchestraʼs appearance at Prague Spring capped a four-year overview of Spanish music the festival presented that included tasty samplings of Spanish Baroque, Spanish guitar and lute music and, naturally, flamenco. Orquestra de Cadaqués provided an exciting finale with fine musicianship, vivid authenticity and repertoire not often heard in the Czech lands.

The opener set the table – two segments from Albénizʼs eight-part piano cycle Spanish Landscapes (“Asturius” and “Castilla”), arranged for orchestra by contemporary Catalan composer Albert Guinovart. At first blush, the sound was what one would expect: colorful, richly romantic and vibrant, bordering on hot-blooded. What was surprising was the discipline in the playing. Though deeply rooted in a region, the Cadaqués players give nothing away in technical ability, and Chief Conductor Jaime Martín does a superb job balancing local flavor with international standards. The music was immediately engaging, solidly grounded throughout yet with enough room to accommodate the bright, whirling, almost giddy finish the orchestra gave the “Castilla”.

Spanish violinist Leticia Moreno is a show in herself. She is never still, playing with exaggerated body language, dramatic flair and unflagging intensity; her heart is in every note. Seeing her play Piazzollaʼs Four Seasons of Buenos Aires with a chamber-sized version of the orchestra was almost like watching a jazz big band at work. The performance featured smart, sparkling dialogues between the soloist and orchestra, the sound was tight and propulsive, and just a slight raw edge added a layer of excitement. As the jazzbos like to say, it cooked. In an encore of Piazzollaʼs Oblivion, the orchestra provided elegant backing for a tender, starlit turn by Moreno.

The suite from de Fallaʼs Three-Cornered Hat is more familiar fare, though not often heard with the playful quality the Cadaqués gave it. The pieceʼs strongly visual, narrative quality played to the orchestraʼs strengths, and even the uninitiated would have known this was dance music. It bounded, leapt and at times seemed to spin in mid-air, alive and exuberant. Actual dancers on-stage would have been superfluous.

The closing piece offered an opportunity to hear the only symphony written by Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, a promising early 19th-century composer who died at the tragic age of 19. Maestro Martín is of the opinion that the history of Spanish music would be different had Arriaga lived longer, and it certainly sounded that way in his crisp, classic interpretation. In many ways it was like hearing an undiscovered early work by Beethoven – the same noble tones in the woodwinds, brooding in the low strings, and gathering emotions building to a thundering climax. Arriaga clearly knew his music history and understood where Beethoven was going, with a final movement that looks beyond romanticism. And he could orchestrate well beyond his years. Hearing his symphony was a bittersweet experience, leaving no doubt about why he is sometimes referred to as “the Spanish Mozart”.

Buoyed by the enthusiastic response, Martín served up two encores: a rapid-fire rendition of de Fallaʼs Danza del fuego, and a fittingly triumphant version of the prelude to Ruperto Chapíʼs rousing zarzuela La Revoltosa. At that point, the orchestra had nothing left to prove. This is a group that plays for the sheer enjoyment of making music together, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Martínʼs easy rapport with the audience makes it all warm and welcoming, like meeting a new friend and feeling youʼve known him forever.