On a frigid morning in early November, bundled in coats and scarves under a gloomy grey sky, it was to be expected that concert-goers would be seeking an escape. The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal’s matinee concert “Amor!” was a welcome excursion, sweeping the audience off through the colourful musical tradition of warm, sunny Spain. With the bright clicks of castanets, lush neo-Romantic harmonies and rhythmic drive, the OSM brought a non-conformist approach to the concert hall, highlighting a musical culture so often neglected by the Western music tradition. Through the lenses of both native Spanish composers and those observing from the outside, emotions of the works ranged from passionate outbursts to the light comedy of peasants, from the terror of war to moments of quiet contemplation.

First on the concert was a work of Canadian composer Clermont Pépin, Guernica. The symphonic poem was inspired by the iconic Picasso painting of the same name, a work created in response to the Nazi’s bombing of a town in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Pépin’s musical interpretation walks the listener through Picasso’s distorted black and blue landscape, demonstrating the destruction of war and the pain of its aftermath. Lyrical melodies and rich harmonies were soon shattered by timpani and snare acting as war drums. Familiar Latin rhythms were altered here, pressing forward with the drive of soldiers marching towards battle. The middle of the piece became quiet, as if the observer had stopped to witness the aftermath. This passage was executed with beautiful sensitivity from the orchestra, the strings playing with delicacy. However, by the end of the work the march had returned, this time with militaristic trumpet calls and the entire orchestra joining in lockstep.

Pépin’s work stood in stark contrast with the delicate melodies and light, neoclassical aesthetic of the Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez. This guitar concerto was inspired by the beauty of flowers, birds and fountains of the garden in Aranjuez, south of Madrid. The soloist in this performance was Jennifer Swartz, principal harp of the OSM. This version seemed to be a good fit, the sound of the harp filling the hall without losing the distinctive plucked character of the guitar. Despite a somewhat nervous look between entries, Swartz’s playing was poised, elegant and expressive. Her virtuosity shone in the first and third movements with articulately played scalar passages. The famous second movement, quoted by greats such as Miles Davis and Chick Corea, was beautifully voiced by Swartz and played with a sense of quiet tragedy. Swartz’s expressive performance nearly stole the show, receiving a standing ovation only half way in to the concert.

After this traditional Spanish harmonic language came Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso. Originally a piano piece from the collection titled Miroirs, we heard the master orchestrator’s work at play here. The composer was able to evoke Spanish flare through the use of plucked strings, crotales and col legno passages doubled by castanets. There were bursts of ecstasy, sweeps of woodwinds and moments of soaring melodies, though they were brief and handled with careful restraint. Assistant conductor Dina Gilbert really shone in this performance, her efficient, no-nonsense approach giving room for great swells with a good sense for when to pull back. She embodied the strength and power of work’s high points. As her first time leading a regular concert series with the orchestra, this seemed to be a great success.

It was appropriate that the concert was brought to a close with Suites no. 1 and 2 from De Falla’s El Sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat). One of the most important Spanish composers of the 20th century, De Falla’s ballet follows the comic attempts of a peasant to win the affection of a beautiful miller girl. This tale is conveyed through the music of the people; idiomatic Spanish harmonies, simple melodies and off-kilter alternating meters. There is a dance-like quality to the rhythms, with some parts evocative of galloping horses or traditional dances. Unaccompanied folk melodies came through in the bassoon and trumpet. The music meandered over much terrain, with triumphant marches leading in to dizzying, accelerating frenzies. The performance culminated in great orchestral shots, an exhilarating ending to a concert steeped with emotions and contrasts.

In a Western classical tradition that has notoriously ‘exoticized’ the music of Spain, viewed it as lesser art or simply ignored it all together, it was refreshing to hear works that fairly represented Spanish culture and paid homage to its music tradition.