BBC NOW’s Final Fiesta Sinfónica Has Audience Appeal

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  ¡Fiesta Sinfónica! – Márquez, Mortet, Schifrin, Revueltas: Matthew Featherstone (flute), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Eduardo Portal (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 27.11.2015 (PCG)

 Arturo Márquez (b.1950) – Danzón No 2 (1994)
Luis Cluzeau Mortet (1889-1957) – Llanuras (1932)
Lalo Schifrin (b.1932) – Concierto Caribeño (1996)
Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) – La noche de los Mayas (1939)


This was the third and last in the ‘Fiesta Sinfónica’ series of concerts surrounding the tour of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to South America, and like its two predecessors it introduced some rare and valuable scores. The Danzón No 2 by Arturo Márquez is fairly well-known from the performances and recording of the piece made by the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel, but the orchestra here yielded few if any points to that famously enthusiastic body of players. The opening clarinet solo was inflected with just the right sense of sleazy fluidity, and initial suspicions that this was simply ‘light music’ were rapidly dispelled as the score picked up bite and pace. A pleasant lyrical interlude at the heart of the work led to an even more sleazy final section with some delightfully woozy brass. This is a real party piece.

The brief tone poem Plains by the Uruguayan composer Luis Cluzeau Mortet was a complete novelty. Peter Reynolds informed us in his programme note that Mortet was a prolific composer who wrote some two hundred works, but that only about 10 per cent of these have ever been published. Hearing this piece perhaps explained why. The opening was very impressionist in style, mingling the Delius of the Florida Suite with Debussy’s faun; but the style then became more neo-romantic, bringing echoes of Bax in The Garden of Fand and Tintagel. Then the return of the opening material seemed to interrupt the development of this before it had really got going, and there was little evidence of the Latin American origins of the work – nor really as a description of the pampas, since much of the scoring seemed to suggest running water rather than endless expanses of grassland.

The concert music of Lalo Schifrin, mainly known for his film and television scores, is similarly a generally unknown quantity. But Schifrin studied under Nadia Boulanger, and the feeling of his Concierto Caribeno had in places the feel of such composers of ‘Les Six’ as Ibert and Poulenc. It was in places very loudly scored (with a full complement of brass), but the composer always managed to make sure that his soloist had room to ‘come through’; and there were plenty of novel touches too, like the delightfully piquant passage before the first movement cadenza where the flute was accompanied by grunting trombones and tuba. In the central section of the slow movement the orchestra had a substantial tutti (with the flute silent) which suggested an irruption from a different sort of score altogether (perhaps a Hollywood car chase). But in the solo passages which surrounded this, Matthew Featherstone floated his lines with his trademark lucid tone that have been such a feature of his orchestral playing with this body over the last few years, and he was brilliant too in the fireworks of the finale. In this ebullient movement Schifrin writes a passage for the orchestral strings playing pizzicato like some gigantic and deranged guitar, which made a particularly enjoyable effect. The audience (and the soloist’s orchestral colleagues) rightly cheered the performance to the rafters. On the basis of this work we have been inclined to underrate Schifrin as a serious composer, in much the same way as critics of an earlier generation snootily dismissed the ‘commercial’ Korngold. It would be very nice to hear more of his concert music.

After the interval we had the half-hour suite arranged by José Ives Limantour from the soundtrack of the film La noche de los Mayas, and this of course was conceived as ‘film music’ pure and simple. The grandiose opening sounded like a massive conflation of every Hollywood epic ever heard, and the dozen percussion players stretched across the back of the stage (plus a conch played by one of the hornists) gave a real sense of occasion to the performance. The first movement had a pretty high volume content, but the scherzo which followed had more sense of light and shade, with infectious dance rhythms. In these first two movements one sometimes felt the need of an even bigger body of strings, the players being practically overwhelmed in places; but the superb BBC NoW players came fully into their element in the nocturnal third movement, where the rich melodic lines had plenty of body and a beautiful delicacy during the closing passages. The sudden eruption of the snap pizzicato at the start of the finale came as quite a shock, and in this set of variations the percussionists really held sway, holding together excellently; and the orchestra (when they could make themselves heard) competed as best as they could. The Rite of Spring was an obvious influence on Revueltas’s score here, but so too was Varèse with his highlighting of percussion lines, crowned by some positively deranged insistent bongos played with infectious enthusiasm. The return of the opening theme at the end was magnificent, crowning what must be one of the noisiest orchestral scores ever written. Eduardo Portal, who had conducted magnificently throughout, egged the players on to ever louder volumes at the end in a manner that seemed incredible. I doubt that the sheer overwhelming effect of this would have come across in the live broadcast, but even so the audience loved it (as indeed did I) and home audiences who missed the afternoon transmission should really make an effort to hear the relay on the BBC i-player at some time during the next month.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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