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For the second of the National Symphony Orchestra’s “Iberian Suite” theme programs, part of the Kennedy Center’s current festival celebrating the music and art of Spain and Portugal, they’ve picked four works about Spain by four composers who are all from France. Which seems, at first, not right: a bit like putting on a Mexican film festival featuring Desperado, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and Nacho Libre.
But it’s actually not that bad of an idea. Last week’s program, led by Jesús López-Cobos did, in fact, include a couple of Spanish composers, Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albéniz. And for this week’s, there is value in seeing a place from a different perspective, through the eyes of outsiders. What we learn is that French composers viewed Spain the way American rappers view Brazil: a source of inspiration for its hot climate and hotter women.
That’s not to say the four composers in this program—-two 19th-century Romantics, Chabrier and Lalo, and two 20th-century Impressionists, Debussy and Ravel—-had a lot of deep insights into Spanish culture, or much of a connection to the country at all. Chabrier once spent six months in Spain; Debussy spent a day and went to a bullfight. And there is some degree of condescension that accompanies the real or imagined (mostly imagined) sensuousness and folksy authenticity the composers ascribed to their exotic neighbors to the south. But all that aside, it’s a nice program, played a little unevenly by the orchestra, wobbling through parts and finding surer footing in others.
The NSO benefits greatly from its featured soloist, who is, in fact, Spanish: violinist Leticia Moreno, taking on Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, also known as “the Lalo” because no one ever plays anything else he wrote. Joshua Bell was the last soloist to do the Lalo with the NSO, five years ago, and though I don’t remember that performance well enough to compare, Moreno surely holds her own. Her regal style of playing is accentuated by a severe stance, holding her bowing arm very high, and leaning way back, so that the audience’s view is primarily of her elbow and nostrils. She favors expansiveness over efficiency in her expression, using the full length of the bow whenever possible. This works well with the piece, a real soloist showcase in which the orchestra has relatively little to do for much of it, and the violinist has to somersault through five quite different, mood-swinging movements.
The other highlight, the well-loved Boléro by Ravel, closes out the program. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s unique spin on the familiar work was to not conduct it at all: he stood motionless for the first 12 minutes of the 13-minute piece, letting the snare drum—-placed conspicuously in the middle of the cellos and violas—-keep time with the piece’s namesake rhythm, supposedly representing a Spanish woman dancing on top of a bar. The dramatic buildup from whisper to climax, with that repeated melody winding from the woodwinds to the brass and eventually to the strings, was handled expertly by Eschenbach, presumably through facial gestures we couldn’t see.
The program wasn’t without its problems, though—-one piccolo came in off key in the Boléro, and the opening piece, Chabrier’s sultry rhapsody España, normally a boisterous crowd-pleaser, was conducted loosely to the point of falling apart. The third piece in the program, Debussy’s Iberia, wasn’t too memorable aside from a couple ofmoments in which Eschenbach appeared to try to slow down the orchestra, which didn’t respond right away; this may have been one of his famous unrehearsed, performance-day tempo changes that musicians love. But Iberia isn’t that great of a piece to begin with. Debussy hated the term Impressionist, which pretty well describes Iberia, made up of unfocused blobs of different motifs, best appreciated from a distance.
Thursday’s performance included a second live audition by a candidate for the associate concertmaster position left open by Elisabeth Adkins’ move to Texas, this time a violinist from the Pittsburgh Symphony (an excellent orchestra; a move to the NSO would be a step up in terms of pay at least). And now that Eschenbach is moving on as well, now would be a good time to see him in action: Saturday’s program will be preceded by a performance at the Millennium Stage with Eschenbach accompanying Moreno on piano, playing El Poema de una Sanluqueña by Joaquín Turina. Who was, yes, actually Spanish.
The program continues Friday, March 13 and Saturday, March 14 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10 – $85.