Thursday, February 8, 2018

Spanish Night with Pepe Romero at Long Beach


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

Carlos Surinach.
Relatively brief though it was, and scored for far smaller forces than any of the subsequent pieces, in some ways I was more impressed by the first item in the LBSO's “Spanish Night with Pepe Romero” program than anything that followed. This was the dance suite in three movements, Ritmo Jondo (“Flamenco rhythm”) by Carlos Surinach, Barcelona-born but a naturalized US citizen for the latter half of his long life (1915-1997). 

Scored in this version (there are two others with different instrumentation) for just trumpet, clarinet, timpani, side drum without snares, xylophone, and (crucially) three hand-clappers, the arrestingly gaunt timbres of Ritmo Jondo and its fascinating overlapping rhythms projected an effect of something alien and strangely bleak, even dangerous – an effect enhanced by the vibrant flamenco dancing of Arleen Hurtado, clad in black, not to mention the atmospheric deep red lighting effects with which the Terrace Theater stage was bathed. As a novice in the areas of Spanish and Catalan music, I have no idea how authentic the whole package really was, but I was hooked.

Eckart Preu.
Maybe I misunderstood, but in his pre-concert talk LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu had seemed to imply that native Spanish music may not be up to the standard of some “Spanish” works by non-Spanish composers, thus justifying the inclusion in this concert of a few of the most well-known latter.

I have to say that with the Surinach still fresh in my ears, it made for the wrong kind of jolt to move to the comfortable sounds of Chabrier’s familiar rhapsody España, which despite the French composer’s well-attested first-hand research into many aspects of Spanish music on a long tour of the country, projects an urbanely Parisian tourist’s-ear-view of it (which isn’t to say that España is not thoroughly enjoyable and indelibly memorable on its own terms). I’m sorry to say Rimsky-Korsakov’s equally familiar Capriccio espagnol Op.34, which opened the second half, again had me wishing I was listening instead to something authentically Spanish (ideally, perhaps, by the country’s greatest composer, Manuel de Falla). 

Pepe Romero.
Immediately before the interval came a work that was – the Concierto de Málaga composed in 1981 by Celedonio Romero, father of the hugely popular guitarist Pepe Romero who was on hand to play it, to the delight of a full house of fans. This was a fall-back item: Señor Romero was originally slated to perform a concerto by another 20th-century Spanish flamenco composer and guitarist, Manolo Sanlúcar, but as Eckart Preu noted in his pre-concert talk, the performing material for it could not be located, leading to the late need for a replacement. 

The LBSO, though down to Classical orchestra size with reduced strings and a handful of wind, brass, and percussion, produced a big sound for the dramatic, rhapsodic opening to the first movement (with orchestration by Romero’s colleague Federico Torroba), and the introduction to the second movement was similarly striking, featuring a plangent English horn that to these Brit ears immediately recalled, of all composers, Frederick Delius. Once these preludes were done, however, the solo role dominated, Señor Romero’s guitar articulating with dazzling clarity the full spectrum of flamenco style. 

Celedonio Romero.
With the concerto over and cheered by the capacity audience, Pepe Romero returned for an encore – his father’s solo guitar piece Noche en Málaga – but only after an enchantingly discursive reminiscence of an earlier appearance with the LBSO all of 36 years ago, when his then four-year-old son, Pepe Jr, after being allowed into the rehearsal, had strongly objected to not being allowed to play in the concert! Today, Pepe Sr was, he said, playing a guitar that had been built by his son… who was in the audience (cue shout of “Up here Dad!” from the balcony when Pepe Sr peered out into the crowd to try and locate him). 

Georges Bizet.
The only downside to spending this extra quality time with a great player and great raconteur was that, along with the much longer duration for Ritmo Jondo than the six minutes given in the program book, it made for a very long concert, pushing the final close to the 10.30PM mark. However, that wasn’t the only reason why I was starting mentally to count off the numbers still to go during the final item(s), the Carmen Suites Nos.1 and 2. Bizet’s crowning masterpiece probably has more memorable numbers than any other repertoire opera, and his posthumous collaborator Ernest Guirard has earned the gratitude of untold music-lovers ever since in extracting a neat dozen of them and putting them into purely orchestral garb. But he did create two medium-length suites and not one very long one, and I think there’s a natural limit to what makes a coherent listening experience from collections of short items like these. 

Arleen Hurtado.
For me it would have been more satisfactory to have limited it to one or other of them –preferably Suite No.2, which is the more substantial and varied, and (marginally) less familiar. Nonetheless, after sounding a little reserved earlier on, particularly in the Chabrier, the LBSO was by now thoroughly warmed up. Roger Wilkie and Cécilia Tsan, principal violin and principal ‘cello respectively, made the atmospheric most of their respective solo passages, and piquant woodwind, crisp brass moments, and vigorous tuttis abounded. Arleen Hurtado, now in a blood-red dress, reappeared to grace one movement in Suite No. 2 and, in the final ‘Danse Bohème’, Eckart Preu’s very slow initial tempo and hushed dynamic enabled the build-up of a terrific head of steam into the Presto final section, and a truly tutta forza climax. Despite the late hour, the audience roared its approval. 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, February 3, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Carlos Surinach: F. Plaut; Eckart Preu: Courtesy LBSO; Pepe Romero: Courtesy LBSO; Celedonio Romero: Discogs; Bizet: Prabook; Arleen Hurtado: Flamenco LA.

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