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An explosion of colour

Roy Thomson Hall
11/01/2012 -  & November 3, 2012
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 8, Op. 93
Manuel de Falla: La Vida Breve

Nancy Fabiola Herrera (Salud), Cristina Faus (Abuela), Vicente Ombuena (Paco), Aidan Ferguson (Carmela), Alfredo Garcia (Tio Salvaor), Josep Miquel Ramón (Manuel), Gustavo Peña (Voz de la fragua), Pedro Sanz (Cantaor), Pablo Sáinz Villegas (Guitar)
Núria Pomares (Flamenco Dancer)
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Noel Edison (Choir Director), The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (Conductor)

N. F. Herrera (© Sean Howard)

This certainly turned out to be a special treat.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos made his TSO debut way back in 1970. He made his first recording of Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve in 1965 (with the wonderful Victoria de los Angeles, no less). The big question for this appearance was whether or not he can still maintain freshness and spontaneity

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 which seems a bit of an incongruous juxtaposition with the de Falla work - except one must keep in mind that, as the maestro approaches the age of 80 (and looks a bit frail - except when conducting) he has had more musical lives than a cat, including a stint as musical director of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. This put him at the epicentre of the Viennese classical/romantic tradition and this certainly showed with his clear, well-balanced view of the symphony. For this work Beethoven put aside his big, rhetorical approach in favour of something more laconic. In spite of a fairly large contingent of players (64), Frühbeck kept the work buoyant, with just the right balance of crispness and sonority. Masterful indeed.

Even though the 8th symphony isn’t performed as often as other Beethoven works, it still forms part of the core repertory of any orchestra. Not so La Vida Breve which has occasional operatic performances but really falls into the rather awkward category of dramatic cantata. In little more than an hour it tells of a woman (Salud) who discovers her lover (Paco) is to marry another woman (Carmela). Social class plays a role: Salud is a gypsy while Paco and Carmela are wealthy. The brief life of the title is Salud’s; she confronts Paco at his wedding, curses him, and then falls dead at his feet.

If the piece is to work it must have a vocally strong and characterful Salud - and Nancy Fabiola Herrera simply owns the stage, even if it is a relatively static and crowded concert platform. Her wonderful rich voice filled the hall. Twice during the piece she ceded centre stage to a flamenco dancer, Núria Pomares, who managed to increase the already intense drama, especially in the second dance with its stormy accompaniment by the chorus.

The role of the two-timing Paco is underwritten and it didn’t help that Vicente Ombuena focused too closely on delivering his few lines to other performers instead of out to the audience. A better impression is made by the other tenor, Gustavo Peña, as the voz de la fragua, a Greek chorus role, delivered from the choir loft. Mezzo Cristina Faus and baritone Alfredo Garcia did fine work as Salud’s aunt and uncle respectively.

There is also an atmospheric flamenco song (performed by Pedro Sanz) with guitar
accompaniment. The contribution of the large choir was also effectively atmospheric, especially in the many non-verbal passages.

It was great to know that the ensemble assembled for the two Toronto performances were also going on to California for a further three with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Michael Johnson



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