SKETCHES OF SPAIN
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Monday April 11, 2022
Winding up its current tour, the ACO gave its penultimate performance of this particular program to an enthusiastic QPAC audience; not packed to the ceiling, but respectably populated. This, the 10th time the players had presented this music, involved the usual 16-strong string body supplemented by percussionist Brian Nixon and a jazz quartet put to several uses: trumpet Phil Slater, pianist Matt McMahon, bass Brett Hirst and drums Jess Ciampa.
The intention of this enterprise was to fuse the visiting quartet with the ACO and, for much of the night, the success rate was high. I didn’t see any use of the guests during the opening fragment: Bernard Rofe’s arrangement of the opening to Par les rues et par les chemins from Debussy’s Iberia which was tooling along very nicely, strings and percussion in clear-speaking action, when suddenly artistic director/concertmaster Richard Tognetti made an abrupt leap into his own arrangement of the middle Blues movement to Ravel’s Violin Sonata, for which the soloist took up a contemporary and oddly-shaped instrument. This brought in the visiting quartet tangentially at first, gaining in contributory power as the movement passed in what can only be described as an arranger’s delight. I felt that there was a balance problem a bar after Number 7 in the old 1927 Durand edition when the violin starts its quadruple stops pizzicati and Tognetti was not as striking a contributor as you’d expect, given the assault typical in the two million performances I’ve heard prior to this one.
This was followed by a Sephardic song from Turkey, Yo era nina de casa alta, also in a Tognetti arrangement, that began with a percussive tambour rhythm, cellist Julian Thompson taking up a guitar, while Tognetti outlined the tune. No sooner begun than over; sadly, the guitar proved close to inaudible from my seat, although it made more of an impression during the following reading of Boccherini’s Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid. Mind you, in its original form, the string quintet imitates guitar, drums, bells; this interpretation came complete with its own extra-string sound sources. Nevertheless, Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve gave an excellent account of the Largo assai (Rosary) interludes with excellently judged dynamic balance, and this version did not attempt the crescendo/diminuendo during the concluding Ritirata which seems to have been an atmospheric flourish unknown to the composer.
To finish off the evening’s first half, we got our reminiscences of Spain through several filters in Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bizet bits in a selection from the Russian composer’s near-pastiche ballet Carmen. This piece enjoyed a vogue for some time, one that I’ve never quite understood except that the absence of wind ensures that performances are economically frugal. The arrangement is for strings and percussion (four players, originally, but Nixon and Ciampa seemed to cope; perhaps you only need two players for the selections we heard). I missed a few tubular bells notes in the Introduction and found some of the vibraphone work muffled, but the interpretation from Tognetti and his strings was very smart and arresting with patches of brilliant accomplishment from both sets of violins. We missed out on the ‘Fate’ motive that concludes the opera’s Prelude and features in the ballet, but we did score the Farandole from L’Arlesienne masquerading as a bolero and another import from The Fair Maid of Perth for a Carmen-and-Torero scene.
Some other memorable moments came in the bare-bones version of Escamillo’s Votre toast – here eloquent in its restraint – and the use of three ideally matched violas to carry the melody of the opera’s Act 3 Intermezzo. Despite the nay-sayers and the nonsense started by Furtseva about the blasphemy carried out on Bizet, this work – even in its truncated form – is a scouring agent of sorts, taking you so far into familiar pages and then cutting the ground out from under your comfort-seeking feet. Still, it’s a long way from Spain – just like Boccherini’s attractively hygienic and Debussy’s buoyantly optimistic streets, not to mention Ravel’s sophisticated foray into le jazz hot.
Matters took a sharper trans-Atlantic turn in the two main post-interval performances. The guest quartet took centre-stage for a version of the last movement, Solea, in Miles Davis/Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain. This new arrangement was a collaboration between pianist McMahon and the ACO’s Artistic Administration Manager, Bernard Rofe, the latter’s craft previously encountered in the Debussy transcription. For my taste, the only interesting facet of the experience came through Slater who made a positive impression by following a Davis trail – meandering but always dominant; mind you, what I know of the great trumpeter comes from sixty-plus years ago and a high-school fascination with the Porgy and Bess and Kind of Blue albums, while Sketches of Spain passed me by.
As the work moved forward, the collaboration on display seemed to improve in persuasiveness, reaching a high point in a twinning of the three violas with the band minus McMahon in a stretch that came somewhere near suggesting Spain and exhilarated for itself. One of the question marks over this exercise actually came with Slater’s ‘bent’ notes which stood out, strangers in a familiar landscape and not quite gelling with the string writing which, as far as I could hear, played no games with microtones. Still, the final decrescendo proved to be, without question, the program’s most magical passage: excellently paced, restrained and confident: an ease-filled release into nothing.
For some reason, the ACO planning committee decided to interpose a Victoria motet between the Davis/Evans movement and another McMahon/Rofe arrangement of Chick Corea’s Spain. Well, it was one way of putting a real national composer in a menu that otherwise consisted entirely of outsiders looking in on the Iberian peninsula. From choppy memories, the 8-part Ave Maria sets two choirs against each other with bursts of echoes, imitations and dovetailing; here, the visitors seemed to become one quartet, the ACO strings playing the Choir 1 lines. For reasons I can’t explain, the arrangement worked well enough, although this might have come about because of its simplicity; but then, what could you possibly add to music at this level of textural clarity?
Corea’s widely-travelled work exists in several versions. What am I talking about: it can be heard in a myriad of forms, formats, combinations and permutations and I’ve heard a fair few, if some decades ago. On this occasion, McMahon set the scene with mildly coruscating solo work before he was joined by various collaborating bodies. Not that it was all piano, or all Slater, even if these players gave us the most intriguing music-making across this long piece – the program’s most substantial by far. Tognetti and Valve took the spotlight occasionally, but not for long as the focus shifted between jazz quartet (or trio) and the ACO. Despite its episodic shape, the work didn’t come over as diffuse, being anchored by a long melodic line/chorus that all played in unison or at an octave’s remove (or two of them).
In the end, Spain presented as so much of the evening’s work did: living up to the catch-all title of sketch. I couldn’t find much national flavour in the piece, let alone the vaunted references to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (which are more explicit in Corea’s earlier interpretations of this score). But you might say the same about the Victoria motet, or the Sephardic cantiga – or anything else at Monday night’s concert. For all that fretting about provenance, the exercise itself was full of expert, interesting performances and the merging of two separate bodies succeeded a good deal more than some previous experiences I’ve attended, like Don Banks’ Nexus of 1971, or Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2019. All the same, I hope that we can now move on to new pastures: the ACO’s first two presentations this year have celebrated Piazzolla/South America and the great (or infamous, if you like) Latin American colonizer.