Festival – Les Nits de la Mediterrania, La Nucia
Twentieth Century Ballets
The final concert of the inaugural La Nucia arts festival took place last night. Starting at 10:30pm, it was staged in the town’s recently completed open air auditorium and featured the World Youth Orchestra directed, again masterfully, by Josep Vincent. Given the setting, it would have been so easy to present a procession of pop classics that would have the punters humming along happily. I attended, for once not having even tried to research the programme, a task that is usually rendered essential here in Spain since the detailed list of works is rarely printed on the publicity material.
Having mentioned the setting, it has to be described. The town of La Nucia, just 5 kilometres inland, up the hill behind Benidorm, has been transformed in recent years. I have lived in the town for over four years and have seen an almost complete transformation in that time. It was a beautiful, if quiet place in 2002, when I first visited. Since then a major project of refurbishment and reinvention has been undertaken. Besides a new road, the town now has several shopping complexes, new health centres, libraries, community centres, playgrounds and parks. The most important additions, if, like me, you have a keen interest in the arts, have been the beautiful 600 seat concert hall and, across the road, an outside auditorium that can seat up to 3000. Back at the start of the year the World Youth Orchestra under Josep Vincent inaugurated the Concert hall, l’Auditori de la Mediterrànea, with a concert in which a 110 piece orchestra performed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s a piece that can be its own parody, if played badly. Now I would claim to know just about every note of the piece and in my humble opinion Josep Vincent’s reading of the score, frankly, was perfect.
And so to the setting. La Nucia is perched on the side of a valley that runs down to the sea from the Sierra Aitana and the mountain, Puig Campaña. On the other side of the valley is Polop, a pretty, floodlit, tumbling Costa Blanca town of pastel shades beneath a hilltop citadel. Beyond, the large town of Callosa d’en Sarrià, the centre of the unique nispero trade, lies illuminated at the base of the Sierra Guadalest. Turning a little to the right, there is the jagged junction between rock and sky that is the summit line of the Sierra Bernia and then, over the now well-known town of Altea, the Mediterranean. Behind the outdoor auditorium’s stage, a row of houses and shops become a backdrop for lighting effects. I hope the residents don’t mind. Frankly, it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful place to listen to music, except for the reservation, of course, that the outdoor setting needs amplification, which makes the sound flat. That, I believe, need not be too much of a handicap if the programme is well thought out. And last nights concert triumphed in that respect.
So, initially not expecting much, I took my seat and looked (as best I could in the dark) at the works on offer. Sandwiched between two of Alberto Ginastera’s dances for the Estancia Dances Op8 (1941), we were to be offered Stravinsky’s Firebird, Tres movimientos tanguisticos porteños by Astor Piazzolla and a complete Al Amor Brujo of Manuel de Falla. If the prospect on reading the list of works watered the mouth, the reality simply stunned.
Ginastera’s Danza del Trigo (Dance of the Wheat) rushed and raced to evoke effects of wind gusts on a wheat field. Rhythms and keys are crossed and the music speeds along without actually being fast! I recall an article by Colin Matthews some years ago about how to write music that sounds very fast while in fact changing very slowly.
The Stravinsky, of course, is utterly well known, and like the other two ballets in what most of us regard as his early romantic trilogy, it can become a cliché. But not in the hands of Josep Vincent, who has a complete understanding of the composer’s music. It was superbly played, never rushed, but never allowed to rest.
What followed was a different universe. Astor Piazzolla is known as a composer of tangos, which, for some reason tend to be associated with the lightweight. Josep Vincent, in his introduction to the piece, Tres movimientos tanguisticos porteños, was at pains to tell us that Piazzolla was a “classical” composer who studied with Nadia Boulanger. Yes, true , and he also studied with Ginastera and others, declaring, himself, that he had developed a profound love of Bach. The reference is apposite, since the last of these three tangos turned out to be a complex fugue! I know a number of the composer’s works very well, having heard Joachim Palomares’s ensemble on several occasions and having played the Barenboim disc regularly. But these pieces were as hard as nails. Rhythmically they were tangos, but if you think that Stravinsky’s music might be associated with toughness (which I don’t) you should try these three orchestral pieces by Astor Piazzolla. As ever, Piazzolla uses minor keys, sometimes rather confused minor keys as well. The gloom would be unremitting were it not for his utterly inventive use of form. Throughout, however, there was that little trilling turn that is his musical signature. Surely he was one of the twentieth century’s most original musical voices.
The only work on the programme by a Spanish composer was next, a full account of El Amor Brujo of Manuel de Falla. Written in 1915, the score blends elements of Flamenco from the composer’s native Andalusia with “classical” forms. Scored for medium-sized orchestra and voice, it was performed last night by Mayte Martin, who specialises in flamenco-style singing and she was quite excellent. Necessarily under-stated because of the nature of the piece, her singing added a sonority to the overall sound that transformed the whole piece into something unique. The extremely famous Ritual Fire Dance at the core of the work raised its own round of applause, despite being offered in an intriguingly controlled way in Josep Vincent’s reading. It worked, since the restraint prevented the section dominating the work and thereby held our attention more for the vocal sections.
And then to finish the evening was a real bit of summer night out. Malambo, another of the Ginastera Opus 8 dances, closed the show. Now I will freely admit that when I am in a concert of any type an invitation that we might “put our hands together” and clap along with the music usually leaves me feeling empty and, often, not a little resentful, because it usually indicates a concert that is so poorly presented by the performers that they have to do something cheap to drum up support. But when the conductor turned to the audience, a few phrases into Malambo and indicated participation, frankly, it was impossible not to comply. The piece is utterly infectious. The whole audience joined in – AND the whole audience was utterly attentive, able to react immediately when the conductor turned to quell the clapping with a wave of the hand to allow a detailed variation in the music to come through, and then start again as requested as the main rhythm returned. Five works in the concert, three of which I had not heard before, faultless playing by the World Youth Orchestra and, as ever, the highest possible standards of interpretation under the direction of Josep Vincent …. Quite beautiful.