Sometimes concert-goers have no idea what to expect from an elusive press release. This was absolutely true when a double-bill of two virtuoso soloists, on castanets and violin, at the Royal Opera House Muscat had people talking for weeks in advance. Eagerly anticipating audience members turned up on Thursday evening, wondering what the programme would be, and more importantly how on earth castanets could be the soloist with an orchestra. But they were, the programme was perfect and the smiles as people left were broader than ever.
The young, vibrant musicians of the Orchestra Accademia Teatro Alla Scala provided the backbone of the concert under their youthful 46-year-old Spanish conductor, Óliver Díaz. The programme was an artistically balanced menu of Spanish and Spanish-inspired works from the best European composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The seventy members of the orchestra filed on stage bang on time; sadly some audience members were less punctual and were admitted during the opening of Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1887, “Capriccio Espagnol”. The piece is a brilliant composition for orchestra, a tone-painting of a Spanish Fiesta in five movements and was superbly performed and conducted. It gave prominence to a stunning gypsy fiddle solo by Nicola Bossone, the orchestra’s capable Leader (Concert master), along with Principal Cellist, Thomas Bertolotti, and some haunting Cor Anglais lines from Matteo Forla. The deliciously dramatic Spanish score featured a warm string quality and splendid horn playing which continued throughout the evening. In the final ‘Fandango of the Asturias’, the five percussionists executed the vivid rhythms with perfect precision and brought the Capriccio to a tumultuous conclusion.
The legendary ‘Queen of Castanets’ and star draw of the evening, Lucero Tena, performed Albeniz’ ‘Castilla’ from front of stage with dazzling technique and clarity. At times like clattering horse-hooves, the wooden, hand-held percussion were loud and clear against the orchestral fabric which introduced the bell-like Celesta of Yiping Zhu. She continued with Sarasate’s ‘Aires Gitanos’ in a non-stop virtuoso ‘concerto for castanets’ with impressive agility for an octogenarian whose wrists amazingly did not protest.
Maurice Ravel’s 1924, “Tzigane” is an Hungarian Rhapsody for solo violin and one of the most technically challenging in the repertoire. The wunderkind Italian violinist, Giovanni Andrea Zanon, defies belief for his mastery of the instrument at just 20 years old. He began studying aged four and gave his first solo performance aged thirteen in Venice! The two page unaccompanied opening cadenza was performed with such poise and control in his individual style, violin tail-up and played with stunning physicality. Fast passages with false harmonics, left hand pizzicato or double-stopping seemed effortless in this phenomenal tour de force. The orchestra finally joined in a score dripping with chromatic and impressionistic chords and Claudia Lamanna’s lush, sweeping harp playing. Self-conscious and modest, Zanon received rapturous applause as he hugged conductor Díaz and took his leave.
The Finale of Part One brought Lucero back for a splendid rendition of Manuel de Falla’s brief but witty, ‘Danza Española’ from his rich orchestral, ‘La Vida Breve’. There was beautiful ensemble and brilliant brass playing with good balance between soloist and orchestra.
Part Two opened with more Falla, his iconic “Three Cornered Hat”; another familiar but exciting suite featuring fine articulation of the Spanish rhythms and powerful tutti sections, ending in a grand Festival Finale. It was a pleasure to watch the young musicians enjoying the fiesta, a smorgasbord of constantly juxtaposed dances with brilliantly executed rhythms and woodwind playing, especially from Giona Pasquetto on clarinet.
Lucero Tena’s return in the second half heard her playing-out the melodies or rhythms, and less constant virtuoso in Giménez’ ‘El Baile de Luis Alonso’. In Bizet’s shortened Overture from ‘Carmen’ the former flamenco dancer’s castanets were perfectly in context tapping out the Spanish rhythms. In a neat segue to Sarasate’s ‘Carmen Fantasy’, Zanon reappeared in red cummerbund to show a different quality to his virtuosic playing; his own interpretation may have put Sarasate himself to shame! Whole phrases were played on harmonics or demanded his considerable technique in dazzling originality, while the second section was a more lyrical dialogue with cellos. Beloved songs from the opera could be recognised in a decorated, ornamented cadenza until the breath-taking speed and technique of its conclusion.
In the second extract from Gerónimo Giménez the mesmerising castanet soloist, eyes closed and absorbed by the music, picked out the intricate rhythms in impressive dialogue with the orchestra, including some great Brass playing.
The programme allowed time for two encores within its two-hour parameter, and returning in his black cummerbund, the slight Giovanni Zanon had prepared an iconic encore for violinists – the lyrical, romantic ‘Meditation’ from Massenet’s 1894 “Thaïs”. Opening with a harp solo which melted into lush, warm string accompaniment with horns and timps, Zanon communicated with a maturity of expression and pathos beyond his years.
The grand Finale in response to numerous standing ovations saw queen of the night, Lucero Tena, perform Amadeo Vives’ 1923 Zarzuela, “Fandango Doña Francisquito” with hands dancing in trance-like reverie. Everyone loved the show and hoped that ROHM will bring back these two legends of their time – very soon.
STORY BY GEORGINA BENISON
PHOTOS By KHALID AL BUSAID