Fandangos and more
Amal Choucri Catta tours the Spanish provinces
Cairo Symphony Orchestra; cond. Sergio Cardenas, soloist guitar Juan Carlos Laguna. Main Hall Cairo Opera House, 17 January, 8pm
Saturday night was Laguna night, no doubt about it. Young Juan Carlos Laguna is an extraordinary guitarist, a rare virtuoso who brings to mind Shelley's beautiful poem, "With a guitar, to Jane":
For it has learned all harmonies
Of the plains and of the skies,
Of the forests and the mountains
And the many-voiced fountains...
...And pattering rain, and breathing dew,
And airs of evening, and it knew
That seldom-heard mysterious sound,
Which, driven on its diurnal round,
As it floats through boundless day,
Our world enkindles on its way.
Born in Mexico City, Juan Carlos Laguna, an "Urtext Digital Classics" exclusive artist, is one of the most outstanding guitarists of his generation. He studied at the National University Music School, graduating with honours, and is a faculty member of the same. In 1991 Laguna won the first prize at Tokyo's International Guitar Competition. He has performed with many leading orchestras around the world, most recently with the London Symphony Orchestra.
On Saturday he was the soloist with Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sergio Cardenas, at Cairo Opera's Main Hall. The house was packed -- local audiences seldom, if ever, are granted the opportunity to listen to a concert featuring guitar and orchestra, and many had specially come for Aranjuez, one of the most celebrated tunes of the 20th century, composed by the great Spaniard Joaquin Rodrigo. A gigantic piece of music, by a man feted as the greatest Spanish composer of the second half of the 20th century who was clearly in a desperate mood when creating the Concierto de Aranjuez. It was in the winter of 1938-39, while he was struggling to survive in Paris, unable to return home to Spain due to the civil war. His wife, Victoria, was seriously ill in hospital following the death of their first child. Friends recalled seeing him at the piano in his freezing room, trying to work on the adagio of Aranjuez.
Out of such despair a sensational tune was born. Starting with the allegro con spirito on the guitar it proceeds into the slow, meditative second movement, an elegy for a dead child. Its steady pulse is the heartbeat of mother and baby, and the frenzied outburst by the guitar solo, at the end of the cadenza, is an eloquent announcement of the anguish of a man who faces the possibility of losing everything. It is followed by a cry of despair as the main theme returns, straining, on the violins.
The circumstances that informed the composition of Aranjuez's second movement were revealed by the Rodrigos long after the event. Various interpretations had circulated earlier -- Rodrigo himself, at one time, told the press the tune was inspired by the "wind in the trees"; on another occasion he described the piece as "Goya's shadow full of melancholy".
The entire concerto is not merely a gracious evocation of the beautiful gardens of Aranjuez -- the fabulous 18th-century palace used by the kings of Spain as their summer home -- but a reminiscence of happier days. By the end the tone is resigned, and it culminates in the ethereal harmonies of the guitar's and the orchestra's closing tune.
The story and the Concierto de Aranjuez, however, ended happily: Victoria survived and the Rodrigos had, in later years, a daughter who gave them two grandchildren. They enjoyed fame for another 60 years: Victoria died in 1997 and Joaquin in 1999, aged 97. They are buried in Aranjuez, having been granted the titles of Marqueses de los jardines de Aranjuez by King Juan Carlos of Spain in 1992.
The Aranjuez concerto became one of the great classic hits of the 20th-centry. It can be heard just about everywhere, from concert halls to shopping malls. The poignant tune of the second movement has become a kind of white noise.
Born in Valencia, Spain, in 1901, Rodrigo lost his sight after contracting diphtheria in 1905. His 170 works include 11 concertas: yet, however easy on the ear, musicians tempted to tackle his scores find some fearsome technical challenges. His music for guitar solo, an instrument Rodrigo could not play, is among the most difficult in the repertory of that instrument.
Saturday night, at the opera's Main Hall, fascination was doubled by reverence while Juan Carlos Laguna gave his enraptured audience a vividly passionate performance, an ecstatic, richly coloured account. Spontaneously cheered and often recalled, he gave the listeners two enchanting encores before disappearing in the wings.
Saturday's concert was entirely dedicated to Spanish music. It began with Isaac Albeniz's three tunes from his Iberia Suite, which comprise 12 pieces for the piano, orchestrated, among others, by Enrique Arbas: Evocation, a meditative, poetic, dreamlike tune, El Corpus en Sevilla, also known as "Fete-Dieu a Seville", reminiscent of a colourful religious procession, and Triana, a particularly Spanish tune, evocative of Sevilla's surroundings. All three are inspired by memories of Andulusia. They are sad, filled with nostalgia. All were written in Paris where Albeniz was living, having left his homeland, Spain, when he did not get the success and recognition he expected and felt he deserved.
The concert's second part opened with three dances of Manuel de Falla's second suite of El Sombrero de Tres Picos: The neighbour, Miller's dance and the final dance. The music began as a one-act ballet, based on the novel by Pedro de Alarcon and choreographed by Diaghilev. It opens with a fanfare announcing the entry of the bull into the arena: the corregidor, town magistrate, whose three-cornered hat is symbol of his authority, has set his eyes on the miller's wife: the bassoon-solo hails his arrival while the miller and his wife are dancing a fandango. Different dances follow, at a rapid, delightful pace while the music harmoniously mingles popular Spanish themes with vivacious rhythms. The orchestration is of a prodigious virtuosity, with guitar effects and ravishing crescendos.
Manuel de Falla, the Spaniard who had composed two zarzuelas in his youth, before studying composition in Madrid, was teacher and friend to Joaquin Rodrigo, and greatly influenced by Dukas, Ravel and Debussy, who were also his friends. Born in Cadiz in 1876, de Falla died in Argentina in 1946, leaving three operas, two ballets and an important number of pieces for the piano, chamber music, vocal and choral pieces and orchestral suites.
Le Cid is a four-act opera by French composer Jules Massenet, based on Pierre Corneille's famous play of the same title, and telling the tale of Chimene and Rodrigo. Their love seems to thrive under a fatal astral constellation: her father having insulted Rodrigo's father, and the latter being an old man, asks his son to avenge him. In a duel Rodrigo El-Cid kills Chimene's father and she insists on being avenged in her turn.
Massenet's opera was followed by an orchestral suite, with seven separate dance sequences based on different provinces: Castillane, Andalouse, Aragonaise, Aubade, Catalane, Madrilene and Navarraise. Using Wagner's leitmotiv- device, Massenet translated the music in his melodious and agreeable style, considered by some a little too saccharine. In the later 20th century he has nevertheless won admiration for his craftsmanship, his sense of theatre and understanding of the human voice.
Cairo Symphony Orchestra's performance of Massenet's suite was stylish, technically accomplished and in the end beguiling. The audience appeared to love the programme.