American Symphony presents Music of Spain: Composers of the Civil War

American Symphony music director Leon Botstein's main focus has usually been on music from central Europe, but now and then he veers sharply away to examine other musical traditions.  Last night's concert at Carnegie Hall provided one of those excursions, presenting performances of rarely-heard music by three self-identified Spanish composers whose lives were affected by the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.  The result was a fascinating evening of discovery under the guidance of this intrepid musical explorer.

First up was Joaquin Turina (1882-1949), who embraced the fascists during the war and became the favorite composer of the young Franco regime.  A musical conservative whose music was heavily influenced by the most celebrated Spanish composer of the pre-war period, Manuel de Falla, he wrote  with a heavy Spanish folk-accent, his music tonal and sumptuously orchestrated.  His Sinfonia sevilliana, Op. 23, dating from 1920, provided an interesting introduction to the concert and to his music, although falling a little short of the title theme, as it so thoroughly predated his Civil War experiences.  Nonetheless, the work is tuneful and attractive, especially the middle movement with its heavy overlay of French impressionism.  (Turina studied in Paris.) 

Next we had the first of two samples of the music of Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970), whose inclusion in this concert prompted me to use the phrase "self-identified Spanish composers" above, for he was born, according to the informative historical program note by musicologist Byron Adams, to a Swiss father and an Alsatian mother, although he "proudly and defiantly considered himself truly Catalan."  His musical studies took him to Vienna and early-to-mid-20th century modernism of the dodecaphonic variety, as opposed to the more usual French orientation of Spanish composers of his time.  He sided with the Republicans in the Civil War and ended up fleeing to Great Britain after the victory of Franco's forces.  Thus a major part of his career was spent in England, and the music played on this program all post-dates his years of Spanish residency.

Before intermission, we heard his ballet music for Don Quixote, dating from the 1940s.  Although Gerhard used 12-tone techniques to generate the melodic materials, according to Adams, one would hardly detect this without being told, because the music is quite dramatic and tuneful in its way, and hardly prepares one for the shock of his 4th Symphony, which concluded the program.

After intermission, we heard a late work of Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), his Homenajes (Homages), written during his post-Civil War exile in Argentina.  The most conservative music on the program, this is a set of four brief pieces, each paying tribute to an important person in de Falla's musical life.  An opening wind fanfare celebrates Enrique Arbos, best known today as an orchestrator of piano works by Granados, and as the conductor of important early recordings of Spanish music.  Next is a tribute to Claude Debussy, whose impressionism influenced the development of Spanish music among the young composers who flocked to France to study.  Paul Dukas, another French composer respected by de Falla, is saluted third, and the finale, "Pedrelliana," remembers the important Spanish composer and pedagogueFelipe Pedrell, de Falla's composition teacher.  This is all vividly orchestrated and permeated with Spanish folk elements.  I can strongly recommend Ernst Ansermet's recording of this piece.  The ASO did it proud.

Finally, we had Roberto Gerhard's Symphony No. 4 "New York," written on commission from the NY Philharmonic as part of its 125th anniversary commissions during the 1960s and premiered by that orchestra in 1967.  They did not take it into their permanent repertory (has anyone heard the NYP play it again since the premiere?), and one can hear why immediately.  This is very abstruse music in the thrall of the 1960s avant-garde.  Little bits and pieces of tunes creep in from time to time, but this one-movement work is mainly devoted to texture and dramatic gesture.  It is hard to follow a thread of musical argument through the piece, but one suspects that repeated listening might lead one to find more in that direction than at first appears.  I thought the orchestra struggled with it a bit, as the writing, especially for the strings, sounded quite virtuosic.  There is much imaginative use of percussion.  I didn't come away liking the piece, but not disliking it either, feeling rather neutral and interested in hearing it again.

This concert helps to explain why the ASO is such a valuable part of NYC's musical life. Although none of the works were billed as US or NY premieres (as frequently occur on their programs), none of these works have had frequent exposure on our concert programs.  Actually, Spanish orchestral music is mainly ignored by our leading musical institutions in this city, apart from an occasional trotting out of de Falla's ballet music, and I would love to hear more of it.  One contemporary Spanish composer whose works I've been exploring is David Del Puerto, and it would be great if the ASO would take him up….

One thought on “American Symphony presents Music of Spain: Composers of the Civil War

  1. A favourite of mine, that might have fitted well into this programme, is Ernesto Halffter’s Sinfonietta. A few years ago in Barcelona we switched on the TV in our hotel room to find an orchestral concert in progress with unfamiliar & delightful music which turned out to be the Halffter piece. I went straight out and bought a CD of it.

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