Concert like a trip to sunny Spain

Guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of tuneful, old-school Spanish works.
Guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of tuneful, old-school Spanish works. (STEVE J. SHERMAN)
Posted: March 03, 2012

Hispanic culture is refreshing classical music in ways that weren't imaginable 20 years ago. But rather than accessing the provocative, eclectic, and sophisticated new generation of composers (Roberto Sierra, Osvaldo Golijov), Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos stayed with the old school in his second guest-conducting week with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center.

Such tuneful, atmospheric music couldn't help feeling like a warm-weather vacation on a chilly Thursday in March - but one without lasting impact, if only because so much of the repertoire seeks merely to be charmingly rustic. Or, in the case of the one living composer, Lorenzo Palomo, a Spanish counterpart to Respighi's hyper-descriptive Roman Trilogy.

Performances benefited greatly from the considerable musical charisma of Frühbeck and guest guitarist Pepe Romero, the elder statesman of his instrument. Now in his late 60s, Romero was mesmerizing, at least in the middle movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's popular, folksy Concierto de Aranjuez. It's there that the details of his demure, unamplified instrument were best heard in Verizon Hall. He was able to project vibrato in lower registers of his instrument that you don't hear in other guitarists. Passagework rippled out like some sort of natural phenomenon.

In more intimate passages, he dared to take both volume and tempo down a notch, drawing your ears closer into the music. The flexibility of his rhythms gave the music great expressive elasticity. In other movements, somewhat deliberate tempos seemed mildly at odds with the music's amiable nature and the possibilities of sparkling repartee between guitar and orchestra.

The four excerpts from Palomo's Andalusian Nocturnes were more self-consciously wrought postcard music, and came with strategy: The guitar was smartly showcased with less interference from other instruments. And though the pieces are orchestrated with alluring precision, they seem a bit shapeless, perhaps due to being excerpted from the complete cycle of nocturnes.

The guitar showcases were framed by Joaquin Turina's Danzas Fantasticas, played by the orchestra with great coloristic specificity, and Ravel's Bolero at its most entrancing. In the latter, Frühbeck had a faster-than-usual tempo and clear sense of the music's plateaus, starting with a series of chamber-music duos between harp and solo instruments, notably trombonist Nitzan Haroz, whose high-personality, woozy audaciousness no doubt comes from having played in salsa clubs during off hours.

When Bolero evolves into a full orchestral piece, the repetitiveness inspires extra-musical associations. When you know what's coming next, your mind is free to ask what, exactly, is this music? A patriotic procession? A quasi-religious ritual? A march into the abyss?

I vote for them all.


 Additional performance:


8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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