Review: Rodrigo Guitar Concerto
By Perry Tannenbaum
Christopher Warren-Green has done some new and innovative things since becoming the musical director at Charlotte Symphony: KnightSounds concerts aimed at young professionals, Thursday evening concerts, and live outdoor video broadcasts. But last week’s Rodrigo Guitar Concerto, the first Classics Series concert ever at Knight Theater, was unique, for Warren-Green himself wasn’t there to launch the new venture.
Not to worry, his stand-ins were sensational in their Charlotte debuts. First, there was guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger, who brought with him an engaging program of Latin-flavored pieces written between 1913 and 2003 by five different composers, most of them new to Symphony and to its subscribers.
How many pieces they played is actually open to dispute. There were two different Astor Piazzola selections, “Oblivion” and “Spring” (from Four Seasons in Buenos Aires), but pieces by Alberto Ginastera and Gabriela Lena Frank might be called single multiples. Frank’s 2003 suite was Three Latin-American Dances, each with its own title, and Ginastera’s Four Dances were no less individualized, excerpted from his 1941 Estancia ballet score.
Even the opening piece, Manuel De Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 1, was brimming with titles, four of them. The first, “Introduction – Afternoon,” was bold, brash, and filled with sunny fiesta exuberance, but everyone’s adrenalin onstage was flowing too freely, for the volume level was a little too fierce for the house. One wonders whether the orchestra had rehearsed without the acoustic shell that now surrounded them, since the brass especially needed taming.
While Symphony adjusted to the hall, Classics subscribers habituated to Belk Theater were also acclimating themselves to the greater immediacy of the orchestra sound at the Knight. There were also quieter episodes after the opening trumpet and timpani cannonade where we heard the clarinet, French horn, and oboe carving out space for themselves – even a rare bassoon spot – so the orchestra’s principals could recalibrate how loudly they played. Already the evening promised to be very colorful, with flute, harp, and a muted trumpet joining the symposium before “The Grapes” steered us back to jubilation.
Despite his Madrid concert with Plácido Domingo in front of 85,000 people, I had never heard of Pablo Sáinz Villegas before he strode into Knight Theater for his first Charlotte performance. Unlike the better-known Sharon Isbin, who played Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez at Belk Theater in 2009, Villegas didn’t bring any amplification with him.
He didn’t need it. Villegas quickly proved his virtuosity and charisma in the opening Allegro con spirito movement of the Concierto. Almost as quickly, the sound of his guitar became the preeminent reason why the Knight was such a brilliant choice for this music. Warren-Green should have been there, if only to hear his choice vindicated. He might also have joined with the audience in giving Villegas an unusual ovation at the end of the first movement. The strumming and the Spanish tinge that Villegas poured so plentifully into his playing seemed to infuse the strings with a special transparency when they entered.
But of course an Aranjuez must be judged by how well the soloist plays the familiar middle movement Adagio. The score has such sublimity to begin with that a critic finds it difficult to remember his pen, and Villegas treated this Adagio with no less reverence. Where the solo part touches the stratosphere with high harmonics, Villegas was exquisite, and where the long cadenza later on goes low, he caressed it with a fervid vibrato and a soft touch, providing a long runway to ramp up his intensity. Lehninger and Charlotte Symphony didn’t spoil the magic. Terry Maskin played the English horn’s runs at the melody as beautifully as ever, the ensemble’s answer to the mighty cadenza was never rushed, and the flurry of harmonics from Villegas at the end was the best I’ve ever heard.
Instead of a standing, stomping ovation, the audience maintained a rapt, stunned silence. Two or three people actually walked out, possibly because that music alone was what they had come to hear, or possibly because they didn’t wish to sully their ears with anything that might erase the deep impression lingering there. Not even Rodrigo’s next movement.
Fortunately, Villegas didn’t get the wrong impression himself, for he played the final Allegro gentile as if he were already celebrating a triumph, not the slightest restraint remaining in his strumming. The previously withheld ovation burst forth with equal joy that clearly touched the young guitarist, even if it didn’t surprise him. The first encore he delivered, “Gran Jota de concierto” by Francisco Tárrega, sported tuned percussive effects delivered by hitting the body of his instrument with an open right hand while playing the neck with his left. Another section sounded so dry that it was like hearing the tattoo of a snare drum. Impossible for us to let him go after that display.
So Villegas finished with Tárrega’s melancholy classic, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” returning us to Spain for his farewell. The beauty of it is the melody and the tremolo rolling together in wistful waves. Villegas kept the two strands separate and soulful, so it never sounded the least bit like an etude.
If the two encores kept the concert from ending at 9pm as promised in the program booklet, intermission added further delay, for Villegas was out in the Knight lobby signing his CD, and an unusually hefty line formed for the privilege.
Before the lollipops of Piazzolla and the beefier Ginastera, the little suite by Frank assuaged anxieties that 21st century composers are all about chaotic cacophony. Many Americans have now awakened to contemporary works emanating from Europe, Asia, and South America and realized that they are out of step.
After a deluge of mallet percussion, Frank used the violins to build a bridge to tonality in “Jungle Jaunt,” the first of her three dances. “Highland Harawi” was more tranquil in its percussion, most unique for the unusual instrument that Lehninger thoughtfully introduced us to, percussion tubes that produced gentle sounds of rain. Tubular bells, woodblocks, harp, and voodoo piano runs were part of the mystery. As if reaching a clearing, “The Mestizo Waltz” began with the kind of trumpet heraldry that conjured up Mexico and mariachi before settling into 3/4 time as promised.
Uncharacteristically, concertmaster Calin Lupanu began the evening with a paean to live music, confiding in us that nearly all recorded music is fake, edited and doctored by sound engineers before it’s reproduced on the medium and player of your choice. Lupanu’s frank intro, the new venue, and the preponderance of unfamiliar music were all symptoms of a basic urge to break some of the old rules. So nobody seemed to mind the breach of etiquette when the audience applauded Villegas two movements early.
It was all good, exciting, youthful and fresh, without the slightest hint of dumbing down or condescension. The exhilaration in the lobby at intermission carried over to the end of the concert, because new discoveries kept coming.