For European artists, Spain had long been the dark outsider, the mysterious peninsula, in their midst. With the Catholic Church and the monarchy in absolute control, unchecked by an impotent nobility and a large peasant class, Spain resisted ideals of the Renaissance and Enlightenment that helped guide much of the rest of Europe toward the modern world.
As an “outside” culture, Spain was often viewed in two dimensions or as received images — the exotic Moorish perfume, the kaleidoscopic Gypsy dances, the tart sensuousness of the native folk songs. But it’s that world largely of fantasy — brutal and sexy and unknowable — that stoked composers’ imaginations.
On Thursday night, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra offered four views of Spain from a conductor who is half German and half Japanese and an Argentine pianist who lives in Italy. Both maintain international touring schedules.
Jun Märkl (left) has recorded a Debussy cycle (for Naxos), at the helm of the Orchestre National de Lyon, where he’s music director. He opened his ASO debut with Debussy’s popular “Ibéria,” from the triptych “Images.” This is music of identifiably Spanish rhythms and atmosphere. It shows the composer moving away from his hazy, Impressionistic style (of, say, “La Mer”) to thinner textures and original orchestral effects, where the listener’s attention is split between foreground and background (supple woodwinds against a slow orchestral swell in the background) or the wound-up, mechanical-sounding rhythm in the final movement, with its cubistic cross cutting.
Except for some scandalously out-of-tune viola playing in the first movement, Märkl had the ASO playing tightly and with a vivid sense of color. The music never quite flowed, however, as if the bar lines were audible. With familiarity, in repeat performances tonight and Sunday afternoon, the whole thing will likely sound less blocky, more fluid.
With his long baton in almost constant motion and a boyish grin, Märkl looks the part of a dashing conductor. His career started with a formidable push after a competition win in 1986 and studies with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.
Märkl and the orchestra delivered a formidable reading of Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan” that was sonically alive, with almost everything in place, yet not quite congealed — except for Elizabeth Koch’s melancholy and deeply expressive oboe solos, a highlight of the concert. Again, the whole thing sounded as if it needed one more day to cook.
The first and last time the ASO performed Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Garden of Spain” — in 1974 under Robert Shaw and in 2002 under Robert Spano — the pianist was Alicia de Larrocha, the sovereign of Spanish piano music, who died at age 86 in 2009. Not really a concerto, the music was called “symphonic impressions” by the composer, and it shows his Parisian influences — a sort of aesthetic feedback loop in which French impressions of Spain returned home via actual Spanish composers.
Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter had the solo part Thursday. A remarkable musician, Fliter integrated with the orchestra seamlessly and played with rich and somehow “feminine” phrasing. The orchestra more than once drowned her out, but the performance felt charged and compelling.
Maurice Ravel’s ballet “Boléro,” which begins very quietly and crescendos to a roaring finish, presented an interesting challenge for a debutant conductor, because the ASO can be an impressively loud orchestra. This is partly due to the acoustics of Symphony Hall, where the musicians can’t hear one another across the stage, and partly due to conductors (especially music director Spano) not insisting on a spectrum of dynamic levels. And the hall’s noisy air conditioner means the room itself isn’t at all quiet.
Thursday’s “Boléro” started with a lot of energy and thus not all that much room to expand. The opening is almost a concerto for orchestra, a sinuous Arabian theme passed around soloists in the ensemble, all against the merciless rat-a-tat of the snare drum. Märkl neatly blended the theme and Spanish dance rhythm into its modern scaffolding, a very pleasant dissonance. The audience gave each work of the evening a happy standing ovation — and applauded between movements too — but it was clear from the ovation that “Boléro” was what they’d come to hear.