Recap: Grand Rapids Symphony heats up winter with sizzling Spanish and Latinx music

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Winter definitely has arrived in Michigan, but if you were in the audience with the Grand Rapids Symphony on Friday, it was easy to forget the chilly winds and flurries headed our way.

Sizzling Spanish music by Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Rodrigo and lush Latinx music by Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera filled an evening with music to warm every heart in DeVos Performance Hall on Friday, Jan. 18.

In short, it was just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to January in Michigan.

The Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series welcomed the sensational Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas back to the Grand Rapids Symphony’s stage. A concert titled “Rhythm of the Dance” naturally needs dancers. Members of Grand Rapids Ballet were part of the show as well.

See it again at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, in DeVos Performance Hall. Tickets for Rhythm of the Dance, beginning at $18 adults, $5 students, remain available.

GR Symphony's Rhythm of the DanceMusic by Spanish and Latinx composers has played a small part in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s repertoire in its nearly 90-year history. Under Brazilian-born Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, that’s changing dramatically.

Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is the world’s best-known, best-loved concerto for guitar and orchestra. Inspired by the gardens of the Spanish royal palace at Aranjuez, it’s full of exciting flamenco rhythms, beautiful melodies and flashy guitar solos. You just can’t listen to it without visualizing it in your mind.

It’s also a thoroughly Spanish work, and hearing a Spanish guitarist bring it to life is a rare treat.

Villegas is a commanding presence on stage as well as an accomplished artist who makes difficult music seem effortless while appearing to have the time of his life performing.

The key to a great performance of the Concierto de Aranjuez is the guitarist has to go the extra mile, make a leap of faith, and trust that the conductor and orchestra will follow. Friday’s performance was an amazing partnership between Villegas and Lehninger that spoke to the humble origins of the guitar and to Rodrigo’s folk-flavored melodies set against the loftier canvas of a well-crafted work for a symphony orchestra.

The first movement is just pure fun to listen to. The achingly beautiful second movement, featuring a gorgeous English horn solo by Kathleen Gomez, unfolded like the sun breaking through the clouds on a gray day. The third movement hummed with energy and expression.

For an encore, Villegas played a waltz from his home in northern Spain that celebrates the harvest. In reality, it’s a set of variations of increasing complexity in which he plays melodies entirely on harmonics or embedded within chords while transforming his guitar into a snare drum and other percussion instruments. It was a performance that had Grand Rapids Symphony musicians craning their necks, straining to see just how the heck he was doing what he was doing.

Astor Piazzolla is to the tango what John Phillip Sousa is the march – the master against whom all others are compared.  Grand Rapids Ballet’s Cassidy Isaacson and Josue Justiz joined the orchestra to dance to “Oblivion” while Emily Reed, Levi Teachout and Nathan Young performed to “Primavera Porteña.”

Sultry and sensuous choreography by GRB Artistic Director James Sofranko was equal to the sultry and sensuous performance led by Lehninger. Between the visual and the aural, it was guaranteed to leave pulses pounding a little faster.

An absolute highlight of the evening Gabriela Frank’s Three Latin American Dances for Orchestra. A contemporary American composer of Peruvian descent, Frank’s makes masterful use of an orchestra to depict the environment. You can easily imagine yourself zip lining through the Amazon, surrounded by the sounds of falling rain, calling birds and even buzzing insects.

The final movement “Mestizo’s Waltz” paid homage to the ethnic and cultural diversity of Latin America with folk-flavored music that’s familiar but which Frank elevates into a higher level of musical experience.

The performance under Lehninger’s baton reveals intriguing possibilities for the future of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

The program opened with Manuel de Falla’s Suite No. 1 from his ballet “El Sombrero de tres picos” or “The Three-Cornered Hat,” a suite that the Grand Rapids Symphony appears to have only performed once previously.

Lehninger led a performance that was flowing, punctuated by insistent musical gestures that were expressive and varied. It kept the orchestra on its toes and the audience as well.

The evening ended with Alberto Ginastera’s Four Dances from “Estancia.” What Piazzolla was to urban life in Buenos Aires, Ginastera was to rural life in Argentina.

Lehninger led a fiercely rhythmic version of “The Land Workers” and a genteel performance of “Wheat Dance” that focused on orchestral color. The payoff was the final movement, “Malambo,” a frenetic, passionate, almost obsessively driven performance that led the audience to erupt in enthusiastic applause.

This fifth Classical Series concert in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s 2018-19 season would be welcome any place, at any time. But especially in the middle of a Michigan winter.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 11:00 AM
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