Criticism has been levelled at Spain's government this year for a lacklustre commemoration of Miguel de Cervantes, its most important literary figure in the 400th year of his death. The same cannot be said of Mexico. This year's Festival Cervantino festival is bigger than ever, with Spain featuring as the official guest of honour – a case of Mexico hosting its former sovereign ruler in the city where the Mexican War of Independence broke out in 1810.

Teatro Juárez © Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino
Teatro Juárez
© Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino

Having Spain at the party ensures artistic excellence; world class acts over recent days have included Compañía Nacional de Danza and Teatro de La Abadía. But it also provides structure to a festival series of vast proportions. Tonight's concert featured an international array of artists, and was held together with a strong dose of Spanish flavour.

We opened with a new work from Fabio Vacchi, the old guard of contemporary music in Italy and an experienced writer for voice whose works have been commissioned by the likes of La Scala. The text for this work for baritone and orchestra is a world away from the usual valiant depictions of Don Quixote. León Felipe wrote Vencidos during self-imposed in Mexico following the defeat of the Spanish Republicans, and identifies his yearning for his homeland with the melancholic image of Don Quixote, elsewhere known as “The Knight of the Sad Countenance”.

William Molina Cestari and the Orquesta Filarmónica de Jalisco © Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino
William Molina Cestari and the Orquesta Filarmónica de Jalisco
© Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino

The music here traverses dark territory, an aural substance seeping through transmuting clusters of instruments. Vacchi strives for music with a corporeal as well as cerebral impact. The tangible colours he conjures here include glassy violin shards, stroked cymbals glazing hollow bass thumps and the sound of something sticky under the surface from molten muted trombones. A rapping march underpins the treading voice part, solemnly conveyed by baritone Carlos Almaguer, who builds to a roar in the work's frenzied B section, then dies away as the music returns from whence it came.

Such tricky music drew virtuoso playing from the Orquesta Filarmónica de Jalisco, though full appreciation of its craft did not come until the leash had been let off for Strauss' Don Quixote. Canadian Music Director Marco Parisotto strides the platform and draws an explosive sound and gusty tempo changes. Only with Venezuela's “El Sistema” orchestras, from which a number of Jalisco members have apparently defected, have I seen such committed playing right to the back desks.

The sound lit up in the plummy acoustic of the 1903 Teatro Juarez, which, carved entirely from resonant wood and fitted with stained glass windows and precious stones, is surely one of the world's most unique. Colourful offerings included an outrageous depiction of the bleating sheep and luxurious playing in the soaring third variation melody. There was no wind machine for the seventh variation "Ride through the air", but playing flew nevertheless. Venezuelan cellist William Molina-Cestari was a gallant Don Quixote, albeit one that sometimes stumbled through the runs, and the viola soloist a worthy Sancho Panza.

Cecilio Perera © Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino
Cecilio Perera
© Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino

A more populist second half opened with intricate, electrifying playing from guitarist Cecilio Perera in Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. De Falla's Three Cornered Hat: Suite no. 2 provided a shock of energy in earthy jota and seguidilla dances. The audience was in fiesta mood by the end. When it comes to Cervantes, Guanajuato knows how to throw a party.