Falla, Ravel, Gulda, Montes

The Royal Philharmonia of Galicia has come to Salzburg’s Great Festival House this week for a concert series.  The orchestra has brought mostly Spanish music to Salzburg, and this is clearly its thing.  A rather new orchestra (founded only in 1996) from Santiago, it had a full and satisfying sound enhanced by rich Spanish color.  Guest conductor Pablo González kept everything sparkling and idiomatic.

The opening work and encore were both purely instrumental, and here the orchestra showed off at its best.  A suite from Manuel de Falla‘s ballet Sombrero de Tres Picos led off, and as with the encore, Negra Sombra, by Galician composer Xoán Montes Capón, the music danced (flamboyantly when required) and provided drama.

The orchestra proved equally good in the middle portions of the concert, but was saddled with poor soloists and one poor musical selection.  Claire Huangci was the piano soloist for two concerti and one solo encore.  While the piano was presumably the same grand Steinway they usually roll out in this hall and which I therefore hear used often enouth, she managed to make it sound like an upright, with an ugly metallic twang.

The first concerto she did, before the intermission, was Ravel‘s.  I assume this snuck into the program because the composer’s mother was a Spanish Basque, and thus he was half-Spanish.  Unfortunately, he got his compositional style from his French side.  I last heard this concerto (twice) a year ago with the sad circumstances of pianist Alice Sara Ott’s tour right after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Ott took a soft approach last year, whereas Huangci was more robust now.  So the work sounded completely different – but it’s still not very good, since Ravel could not really figure out what he was trying to say, creating instead a mass of confusion without a point.  Ravel is unjustly remembered as a great orchestrator (because he indeed did do a great orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition), but generally his orchestrations, if not thin, at least feel like he never got around to finishing the score.  That was true for this concerto too – so not only did he not know what he wanted to say, but he never quite said it either.

The second concerto, after the break, was a better composition: Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain.  Falla of course spent some time in Paris where he fell under the influence of Ravel, Debussy, and other useless French composers.  But Falla had substance, and his work had all the color that Ravel’s lacked.  If it had not been for Huangci’s metallic playing, I might have even forgotten there was a piano there.  As it was, I still enjoyed the orchestral bits – both in tutti and the evocative solo work by the various first chairs.

Huangci bashed the life out of the piano for an encore after the Ravel.  No idea what it was (UPDATE: the Kulturvereinigung has helpfully identified it as Toccata by Friedrich Gulda), but the wild and crazy piece probably was intended to show us she could be very dexterous.  But when Khatia Buniatishvili, sitting in this same hall (possibly even on the same piano) last summer went wild on the keyboard, we got great amounts of subtlety within the craziness.  Huangci just couldn’t manage that.

The final scheduled work – after Nights in the Gardens of Spain and before the Montes encore – was another one by Falla: El Amor Brujo.  Once again, we had some fun orchestral playing.  But now the soloist was mezzosoprano María José Pérez.  She actually had the Spanish gypsy idiom down, more or less (I’ve heard better Spanish gypsy singing, but her style was OK).  Her problem was mostly that she required amplification.  Even with a good speaker system in the hall, this still made her voice sound tinny.  If I want music to sound like a recording, I will listen to a recording (presumably with an even better singer).  If I go to a live concert, I expect to hear live music, unamplified.  If she cannot project her voice, she needs another career.

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