This past season, on Sunday April 28 the program of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was as politely planned as any I have heard then and before from our big band in town. And yes, of course, the music making was wonderful. But I wish that a flight of the imagination would point guest artists appearing in ours and in other American orchestras and our music directors in the direction of the treasure trove of the music of Falla, Granados, Albeniz, Turina, Montsalvatge, Mompou, and Rodrigo, to name but a handful of great Spanish composers from whose compositions some unpredictable programming choices could be made.
The concert opened with Claude Debussy’s Ibéria, a tryptich of orchestral pieces evocative of Spain and its music. Par les rues et par les chemins (“Through the streets and roads”), Les parfums de la nuit (“The perfumes of the night”) and Le matin d’un jour de fête (“The morning of a holiday”) depict in Debussy’s very French terms his impressions of a Spain of his very Gallic imagination.
The unresolved progressions that make up so much of Debussy’s harmonic language, the signature evanescent strains of melody that capriciously come and go, and, of course, the easily mimicked Moorish flavor of so much of the music of Spain are all there, but all put to work in a methodical, respectful manner that belies its provenance as Paris, not Seville. This is music that’s elegant, compositionally comme il faut, but lacking a true Iberian DNA.
In between, a new work for cello and orchestra by composer-conductor Mathias Pintscher was played by Alisa Wilerstein. Un Despertar (An Awakening) is based on a poem by the late Mexican poet Octavio Paz.
In the second half the CSO gave Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso to give a taste of real Spanish musical flavor. First the title: Alborada at its basic meaning: dawn, sunrise…and, in this case, the music of sunrise. The Gracioso is a buffoonish character from the theatre of the Spanish Golden Age that appears in the comedies of Cervantes, Lope and Calderon.
Here we have then a mini-tone poem – one of three in the composer’s Mirroirs in which he depicts a dreamlike scene that perhaps involves more than just the clownish Gracioso.
Ravel, please note, is not altogether a French composer, in spite of his residency and passport, but a pan-European composer who, unlike others like Rimsky-Korsakoff and Debussy and Bizet, who depicted in some of their music a storybook, sanitized Spain, instead wrote gutsy, roof-raising, sun-drenched, toe tapping, earthy music with the soul of Iberia imbuing every bar. Ravel meant to not only evoke, but to celebrate the Spain of his Basque ancestors with his music.
It is my fervent wish that the CSO should begin to expand its horizons beyond the repertoire in which it, along with so many other American symphony orchestras seems to be stuck.
Let us hear some more music from outside the bread and butter box of European 19th and early 20th century’s bearded men. Let us begin to see more female and Black and Latino-Hispanic and Asian and Brazilian guest conductors up on the podium. Let us hear some more soloists of color. Add more women and Blacks and Hispanics and Asians to the rank and file of the players. Expand your Rolodex. Let us hear more music from the far reaches of the world. Let us hear more music written in the immediate, not the distant past. Let us hear more music composed outside Germany, Austria, France, England and Russia. Let us have an orchestra that looks and sounds not like some of us but like all of us.
Rafael de Acha