Grant Park Music Festival THE SPANISH GUITAR Review – Median Musical Magic!

Grant Park Music Festival Presents THE SPANISH GUITAR

The magic of music is what happens in between the notes.  So quoted Pablo Sainz Villegas, Spanish classical guitarist for the evening, in the pre-concert lecture for the Grant Park Music Festival concert titled THE SPANISH GUITAR.  And so it was on this humid, but not hot, special evening.  Special, because it’s a rare treat to see and hear true Spanish music actually from Spain, including the guitarist, done with such saucy flair.

The Spanish Mozart

The opening music was written by Juan Crisostomo Arriaga, “the Spanish Mozart”, so called by his contemporaries because he was, like Mozart, a gifted prodigy. But he died far too soon at the age of 19, a life even more tragically short than Mozart’s. But it was an intense 19 years and Arriaga's piece played this evening, Overture to Los Esclavos Felices (“The Happy Slaves”), had the liveliness of a Rossini overture and the sweet tunes of a Mozart opera. This was a short and sweet opening.

Great Opera Tunes

Speaking of opera, an untried warhorse of the classical-romantic orchestral standard repertoire is the Suite from Carmen, by Georges Bizet, and one doesn’t tire of hearing it.  Yes, the composer was French, but Carmen is a story set in Seville, Spain.

The tragic character Carmen is a gypsy prostitute who, in the seductive Seguidilla (a traditional Spanish dance) lures our hero, the soldier Don Jose to a local tavern.  In the fun, military march-style movement to follow, the bassoons portray The Dragoons (soldiers) of Alcala.

Pablo Sainz Villegas and the Grant Park Orchestra, August 2, 2017; Carlos Kalmar conducts Photo by Norman Timonera

In the contrasting, refreshingly lovely Intermezzo, the solo flute, really beautifully played by Mary Stolper, comforts our souls with her sweet sounding flute tune, accompanied by the harp.  But Carmen soon dumps Don Jose for a bullfighter, and – spoiler alert! - in the exciting music of the bullfight, after the bullfighter is victorious and Carmen is running to him, the emotionally hurt Don Jose says if he can’t have Carmen, then no one can, and stabs her to death for the end of the opera.  But, the music is very satisfying and one is left with the attitude of, hey, it’s a good story!

Pablo Sainz Villegas and the Grant Park Orchestra, August 2, 2017; Carlos Kalmar conducts Photo by Norman Timonera

Fantasy for a Gentleman

Obviously, with a program entitled The Spanish Guitar, the focus is on the world renowned, but still Spanish at heart guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas.  This piece he played with an orchestra, Fantasia para un gentilhombre (Fantasy of a Gentleman), is a lovely showpiece for guitar divided into four movements.  Each movement is based on historic Spanish instrumental dances which might have died out if not for Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) using them in this now classic piece.

One of the dances, the espanioletta used effectively in the 2nd movement, is a touching, thoughtful tune, seemingly improvised on by the solo guitar as the movement progresses.  Then in the same movement a happy fanfare interrupts for an uplifting bridge section, which brings us back to the first espanioletta tune and a soft, all strings plucking together like the guitarist, ending.  

And the much more aggressive Hatchet Dance, used in the 3rd movement feels almost military and appropriately uses a trumpet solo to show off definitely Spanish rhythms after the guitar shows us how it’s done. With full, vigorous strums, powerfully answered in the same style by the whole string section, this movement stirs memories of The Three Cornered Hat by Rodrigo’s compatriot composer, Manuel DeFalla.

During the finale movement – Canario – after the native folk dance is played once, the guitarist takes off in a spectacular cadenza – playing alone with fantastic, all over the guitar musical gymnastics!  Then when the orchestra comes back in the piece soon ends with a last showing off of the clever Spanish rhythm (reminiscent of “I like to be in America” from West Side Story)!  

Pablo Villegas’ performance was so well received, he happily invited us to Spain and played an encore he explained is a jota (pronounced ‘hota’), used in Spain to celebrate the joy of the harvest.  Makes a person want to take him up on the invitation.

Fantastic Dances

The final piece in this special concert was Danzas Fantasticas (Fantastic Dances).  They actually are fantastic and refreshing in that specifically Spanish way, at least to this reviewer.
Lovely English horn solos in the first one, Exaltacion (“Ecstasy”) as well as in Ensueno (“Daydream”) were evocatively played by Judith Kulb.  The final dance, Orgia (“Revel”) was much wilder, using big, exciting brass playing, interspersed with woodwinds and strings section moments.  One of the moments right before the end of the concert, performed by solo cello player Peter Sczcepanek, gave us some last brilliant sweetness before the end of this fantastic concert.

When:

Thru August 19th.

Where:

The orchestra’s location changes to the Harris Theater, nearby at 205 E Randolph St., because of Lollapalooza happening in the area the weekend of August 5th and 6th.

The concerts returns to the Pritzker Pavilion on Wednesdays August 9th and 16th on the weekends thru August 19th.

Tickets:

Free

For more information see the Grant Park Music Festival website.

About the Author:

Mark Lindeblad is a working pianist and bassoonist in Chicagoland.  He received the Bachelor's of Music performance degree, bassoon major, piano minor from Wichita State University in 1978 and the Master's of Music performance degree in bassoon from Roosevelt University in 1983 in Chicago.   While doing piano accompanying was always happening on the side from high school and college years, it stepped up to be Mark’s primary occupation in the 1990's.  Today he is a piano accompanist at Glenbard South High School, and plays principal bassoon in the Southwest Symphony, and also finds time for about 20 private students studying either bassoon or piano.  For more information, visit Mark Lindeblad’s website:    www.markspianostudio.com

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