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Conjuring Russia and Spain with Mena


Juanjo Mena and Garrick Ohlsson (Hilary Scott photo)
Juanjo Mena and Garrick Ohlsson (Hilary Scott photo)

After a refreshing downpour, the BSO took the Tanglewood Shed stage Saturday night with the ballet score of Manuel de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, who made his BSO debut at Tanglewood six years ago, collaborated with pianist Garrick Ohlsson (and the next day with violinist Veronika Eberle for Mozart’s K.218). Mena’s approach to Tchaikovsky’s warhorse was restrained and fluid, emphasizing long lines and extremely gradual crescendos spanning whole sections of movements. This work is particularly close in local historical memory, as it premiered in Boston Music Hall, with Hans von Bülow as soloist, in 1875.

Ohlsson played in a more connected, contemplative manner than in his BSO appearance last March (Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1), and his virtuosity shone with even, gentle passagework through warm ensemble playing enveloped by the strings. Ohlsson has been a regular BSO guest for over four decades and has presented many recitals at Tanglewood and in Boston. This evening eschewed flashy visual presentation: Ohlsson played with a minimum of flourish, his head bowed toward the keys, and from the center of the Shed he looked almost immobile from the elbows up, lending an ethereal quality to Tchaikovsky’s difficult cascading arpeggios and parallel octaves.

Mena was obscured by the lid of the grand on full stick (removing the lid might have improved the balance), so those listeners in the back of the audience and spread out on the lawn under the gradually clearing night sky were the only ones who could see him. Their seats were both visually and acoustically superior for this concert, as most of the BSO players were on tiered risers. A single row of violin stands lined the edge of stage right, and in some cases the next players were raised to such a height that their feet were above the heads of their near colleagues. This created a heavy halo of strings throughout the Tchaikovsky, often overshadowing the winds, and brought out the lowest brass sonorities at the expense of the woodwinds. The excellent work of Tanglewood’s sound and video engineers did bring out contrasts of dynamics and timbre (moreso in the De Falla) and added clarity and brilliance that were sometimes overwhelmed by Shed reverberation.

After a long latecomer pause following the first movement, Mena began the concerto’s second movement so softly that the pp pizzicati and solo flute emerged out of audience rustling. Since the lights had come up, the audience applauded the first movement lightly; the last two movements were played without break. The BSO played uniformly well throughout the third movement, taking advantage of the Shed acoustics to create well-formed, blooming climaxes. In general, the interpretation lacked contrast: rather than a tormented work of emotional extremes, Ohlsson and the BSO presented the masterpiece as a study in consolation, comfort, and elegance. The audience responded warmly. Ohlsson graciously played an encore (Chopin’s Waltz in C minor, op. 64 no. 2). His gradually quickening tempi in every repeat added a touch of humor, and he finally let loose with seething rubato and heavy appoggiaturas in the second falling theme and final section of the piece.

Steven Ledbetter’s program note for The Three-Cornered Hat detailed the scenario for the piece created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1919 (keyed to the eight subtitles listed), and gave the corresponding folk and classical dance forms adapted for each section by choreographer Leonid Massine, who danced the miller. Contrasting with Picasso’s original, modernist backdrops for the production, Massine’s costumes were based on folk attire and lent themselves to a combination of classical ballet movement and Spanish folkdance. Manuel de Falla enjoyed one of his great international successes with this ballet, and he even added a vocal introduction for the London premiere of the ballet “in order to give the audience time to admire Picasso’s drop curtain.”

Saturday night’s audience could easily conjure up Spain from the warmth, color, and fascinating juxtapositions of folk tunes and orchestral writing in the score.

Lojendio Juanjo in red with Juanjo Mena and BSO clpappers (Hilary Scott photo)
Lojendio Juanjo in red with Juanjo Mena and BSO clpappers (Hilary Scott photo)

Mena was in top form, employing a full palette of gestures for dramatic contrast. He seemed to dance along with the orchestra, cajoling sweet rubato from the wind soloists and whipping the brass into a couple of fiery explosions. Soprano Raquel Lojendio’s husky, rich voice was best displayed in the opening Introduction, warning, “Casadita [young wife], lock your doors, for though the devil’s been sleeping, he make awake!” This vibrant young soprano from Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, has appeared with Mena at the Berlin Philharmonic and is a favorite in the opera houses of Spain. Her second feature was originally intended to be sung offstage, so her placement far upstage, behind the violins but in front of the percussion, made her second warning more appropriate to the fully dark evening: “At night sings the cuckoo, warning the couple to make fast their door…”

Mena, Ohlsson, and the BSO triumphed with surprisingly intimate music from a great Romantic Russian master contrasting with the incisive fervor of early 20th-century Spain. I look forward to more from Mena.

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

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