Monday 16 January 2023

Elegance and control: Miloš Karadaglić in Rodrigo and David Bruce with Karen Kamensek and London Philharmonic Orchestra

Picasso's designs for The Three-Cornered Hat
Picasso's designs for The Three-Cornered Hat
Copland: El salon Mexico, Bruce: The Peacock Pavane, Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez, Ortiz: Antrópolis, Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat; Miloš Karadaglić, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Karen Kamensek 
Reviewed 13 January 2023 (★★★★)

Moving between the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America, an engaging programme that went far beyond Rodrigo's classic concerto to a pair of intriguing contemporary pieces

American conductor Karen Kamensek has made something of a name for herself with contemporary music, and the works of Philip Glass in particular (she has conducted his opera Akhnaten at English National Opera and returns for the revival of Phelim McDermott's production at the London Coliseum in March 2023). On Friday 13 January 2023, she joined London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall for a programme that enabled her to show off a wider repertoire. 

Baldly, the programme might have been called 'two Mexican dance halls and two evocations of an Iberian past', as Copland's El Salon Mexico, inspired by a 1920s Mexican dance-hall, was paired with Gabriela Ortiz's Antrópolis, her 2019 tribute to more recent Mexico City dance-halls. Alongside these two, we had the two suites from Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat, his balletic tribute to 19th century Spanish life, and Rodrigo's evocation of an earlier age in the Concierto de Aranjuez with Miloš Karadaglić as the soloist. There was also another recent piece, the premiere of David Bruce's The Peacock Pavane also with Miloš Karadaglić as the soloist.

We began with Copland's El Salon Mexico, based on the dance music that Copland and his boyfriend, Victor Kraft, heard at the dance hall of the same name when visiting Mexico City (at the invitation of composer Carlos Chavez). There is an element of cultural tourism to the piece, except that its sheer exuberance is so engaging and we might also think of it as the 1920s equivalent of two queens going to a disco, having a great time and writing about it. There was a very full stage and the music was initially brilliant and incisive, but for all the jazzy tunes there was something intimate and subtle too. Kamensek kept firm control throughout, the work was slow-build with emphasis on colour and rhythm. For all the exuberance, Kamensek never let things run away with themselves.

Next came the premiere of The Peacock Pavane by David Bruce, which was written for Karadaglić. Bruce used quite a small orchestra, and the work began with Karadaglić strumming the guitar over slow moving orchestral contributions. This texture remained constant throughout the piece, however as the orchestral layers developed Karadaglić's guitar developed in intensity and strength, and speed of strumming. Then things unwound again. It was hardly pavane like and Bruce described it as a piece in which nothing happened, but Karadaglić ensured that the guitar contribution was seductive in its detail. 

Miloš Karadaglić (Photo Lars Borges, Mercury Classics)
Miloš Karadaglić (Photo Lars Borges, Mercury Classics)
The orchestra remained small for Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, a work written before today's ubiquitous use of amplification for the classical guitar and throughout the work we can appreciate Rodrigo's musical imagination in the way he ensures the guitar remains prominent at key moments. From the opening of the first movement, it was clear the work was about the guitar first and foremost as the work opens with a significant guitar solo. Full of crisp rhythms played quiet and tight, the orchestral contribution emphasised the work's neoclassicism. For all the lyrical writing, there was structure to it, and Karadaglić always brought out the lovely detail in the music. Though just occasionally I wished the musicians had been allowed off the leash a little more. The second movement is so simple yet so evocative; we had a finely expressive cor anglais solo, echoed by Karadaglić with an elegantly elaborated version of the same tune. For all Kamensek's control of the music, there was a nice sense of space, but perhaps the tempo could have been pushed on, we dwelled a little too long on the occasional beauties of the music. The finale was crisp and brisk with a fabulous sense of guitar detail. Karadaglic gave us a lovely solo encore, after first thanking the LPO and David Bruce.

The second half opened with Mexican composer Christina Ortiz's 2019 piece Antrópolis. Written for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra's 80th birthday tribute to Philip Glass, the work pays tribute to various 'antros' or dance halls in Mexico City, and so is a very apt pair with Copland's piece. And like the Copland, Ortiz takes this infectious music and runs with it. At first vibrant timpani solos alternated with vivid yet controlled rhythmic orchestral material. Full of colour and movement over tight rhythms, Kamensek kept firm control yet here, unlike the Rodrigo, there was a real sense of relaxing into the rhythms. Kamensek swayed to the beat on the podium, and the music did the same, catchy rhythms creating complex fun, ending in a controlled riot.

Falla wrote The Three-Cornered Hat for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes in 1919, basing it on music he had written for a mime play based on Pedro Antonio de Alarcon's El sombrero de tres picos which was based on a Spanish folk-tale. I am unclear whether Falla himself created the suites, however they cover many of the best bits of the ballet. The music is often played by chamber orchestras, which probably reflects the work's ballet origins, but here we had a large-scale symphonic version with the full complement of LPO strings. Kamensek took the opening at quite a lick, yet it was full of vivid detail, and she knew when to ease off and allow the music space. Falla's writing is a long way from the traditional 'number opera' style of ballet, and for all the fixed dances such as the Fandango, Seguidilla, Farruca and Jota, the music is highly changeable. Kamensek and the orchestra brought out this sense of character and instrumental detail. Elegance combined with vivid rhythms and some terrific solo instrumental moments including further fine cor anglais playing and a characterful bassoon, fast movements were fierce and vibrant. Kamensek kept fine control but allowed the music to be full of colour and movement, and the final pages were satisfyingly exciting.

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