At the 2019 Blossom Festival, a Veteran Guitarist in the Spotlight

United StatesUnited States 2019 Blossom Music Festival – Bizet, Rodrigo, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy: Pepe Romero (guitar), Cleveland Orchestra / Thierry Fischer (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 21.7.2019. (MSJ)

Bizet – Orchestral Suite from Carmen
RodrigoConcierto de Aranjuez
Rimsky-KorsakovCapriccio espagnol, Op.34
DebussyLa Mer

Pepe Romero first played in Cleveland with a summer pops version of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1966. After 53 years, he’s more than ever a master of the classical guitar, and that expertise made for a treasurable performance of Rodrigo’s beloved Concierto de Aranjuez. There may be a slight — very slight — autumnal broadening of the fast movements compared to his classic 1974 recording with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but there was no lack of energy and bright color. Instead the focus was less on the instrumental brilliance, and more on making the instrument speak, as if the notes were a kind of language.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the poignant slow movement, breathtaking in its sorrow. At one point, audience and surroundings seemed united as a mourning dove began chirping along with Romero’s plaintive picking. The important English horn solo was played with equal flair by Robert Walters. An encore followed, a charming showpiece of personal significance: the Fantasia Cubana by the guitarist’s father, Celadonio Romero.

Making his debut with the orchestra — as a late stand-in for the indisposed Pablo Heras-Casado — Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer replaced Debussy’s Images with La Mer and excerpts from Bizet’s opera Carmen.

The Carmen extracts were welcome fare, considering that over the years, the music became so famous that it has been pushed off to pops concerts. Of course, Bizet’s inspiration deserves to be heard as core repertory, and Fischer’s selections made a seven-piece suite of quasi-symphonic shape: starting fast, getting quiet in the middle, then closing fast again.

Overall, his emphasis was on the quieter parts, including a seductive ‘Nocturne’ featuring expressive solos by acting concertmaster Peter Otto. In many selections, Fischer’s conducting was minimal, sometimes to a fault in not giving the players preparatory upbeats to cue entrances. He held back the final ‘Danse Bohème’ until a fast sprint through the closing measures — an effective if calculated mannerism he repeated in the other two works.

The Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio espagnol rightly showed off the ensemble, though at times Fischer didn’t sort textures as much as needed in the Blossom Pavilion’s lively acoustic. In particular, he waited until very late to press forward, missing some of the electric tension that can be generated. Nonetheless, the result was satisfying and even magical, particularly when the gently rolling snare drum blended into the soft rain falling outside.

The highlight was Debussy’s La Mer, a more vivid performance than composer/conductor Matthias Pintscher delivered in Cleveland two years ago. Fischer had the confidence to allow space in transitions, not driving the tempo forward without a specific reason. In the still center of the final movement, he created a dreamy otherworldliness before a convincing transition back to storminess, and then pressed onward into the exhilarating final pages.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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