ASO: Jun Märkl with Catalina Cuervo and Bertrand Chamayou

I ended up going home at the intermission of Saturday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. I’m actually pretty sure that the final piece on the program, Beethoven’s symphony no. 4, would have been handled well by conductor Jun Märkl and played well by the orchestra, but I decided that I didn’t want to sit through it. I can take or leave the work itself and my hip was bothering me. Plus, the main work that I was excited to hear was played poorly and there was an excellent encore after the concerto that I preferred to have in my head over the Beethoven.

The first work on the program – and the main reason that I wanted to attend, was Falla’s “El Amor Brujo.” The first clue that they weren’t taking the piece seriously was that the program listed the movements only in English. I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen French, Italian, or German movement names translated without the original names listed along with them, which suggests to me a linguistic (or even a cultural) bias against Spanish. I found it especially odd given that I’ve sat with and/or spoken with significantly more Spanish-speaking audience members at this and other classical music events around town than I have people from francophone countries (only a handful of times), or native speakers of German or Italian (never). Also interesting is that the mezzo-soprano, Catalina Cuervo, was left off of the list of soloists on the ticket, though she was in the marketing materials that I’ve been able to find.

Märkl really didn’t seem to get the soul of flamenco that is the backbone of the piece and he conducted it more like it was something from Schumann or Strauss, Jr. The dynamics were more appropriate to dramatic German romanticism and not the elegance of Spanish music. Cuervo, in contrast, really seemed to inhabit the piece. Rather than sitting on stage for the entire performance, she entered the stage in character before performing each of the three songs in the work. Her voice was robust and full of character and she integrated percussive flamenco steps into her singing. Unfortunately, she was also somewhat quiet, not really projecting strongly. I could hear her but her voice didn’t really stand out against the orchestra the way that I’d have liked. When she entered and began singing Canción del amor dolido, I had chills. However, that was the only time that I felt that way in a piece that, even in recording, usually sets my spine tingling multiple times. I was particularly disappointed in the failure of Canción del fuego fatuo to haunt me, though I blame the orchestral backing more than the soloist.

While he didn’t seem to get Spanish music, he certainly showed how well he understood German romanticism with Richard Strauss’ “Burleske.” Along with the excellent performance of pianist Bertrand Chamayou, the work came out with a good bit of excitement and here the shift in dynamics came out wonderfully. It’s not the most interesting work in the world, but it was a lot of fun.

Chamayou came back on stage after the applause with Cuervo for a set of two songs by Falla for a joint encore. The first was “Nana” and I’m afraid that I didn’t recognize the second and failed to write down what Cuervo announced. Both were performed excellently, with the Chamayou preparing the piano with paper between the strings for a harpsichord-ish sound. Cuervo’s voice was gorgeous and dramatic and filled the room quite well, proving further to me that it was Märkl alone who stole all the shivers from the first piece on the program.

As I said, I decided to skip the Beethoven that concluded the program. Based on his handling of the R. Strauss, I have absolute confidence that Märkl would have brought all of the wit and humor from the Beethoven that I’ve never managed to appreciate as much as it deserves, but I was as happy as I was going to be with the concert and I’m pretty sure my mind would have just wandered through the rest of it. Honestly, I don’t think that the program made that much sense: classical Beethoven with Brahmsian Richard Strauss and Falla is just a weird combination to me. I’d rather they had continued further east in their musical journey and finished with some Janáček, Kodály, or Bartók.

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