Keeping with the 38th season theme of “Source+Inspiration,” the Rockport Chamber Music Festival presented “Reimagining Flamenco” on Thursday night, a refreshing and largely effective offering of folk song arrangements by pianist Serouj Kradjian and guitarist Grisha Goryachev. The arrangements varied from this duet to a septet comprising voice, violin, bass and percussion, with some taken from classical realizations of the flamenco originals by composers such as de Falla, Albéniz, and even Federico García Lorca.
Kradjian, a Lebanese pianist of Armenian heritage, and Goryachev, a Russian flamenco virtuoso, constitute a perfect pair to curate such a project, and shared the stage for the first two works, the well-known Asturias by Albéniz and the Miller’s Dance from de Falla’s Three Cornered Hat. While the players clearly planned some of the structures of the duets in advance and rehearsed (or else the two share a preternatural mental connection, executing shared 16th-note runs with effortless ease) most of the performance had the flavor of live improv. What made it all work beyond the tremendous talent of the duo was the eyes, and the continuous connection they shared on stage. While the piano (not a traditional flamenco instrument by any stretch) could have been pigeonholed into adding only a classical dramatic flair, Kradjian’s contributions to the charts largely brought to mind Basie-like jazz interjections. The choice to amplify the guitar but let the piano ring naturally was wise; even unison passages worked exceptionally for these two instruments who normally do not make pleasant playmates.
Veteran percussionists Liam Smith and Jamey Haddad joined the duo for de Falla’s set of Siete Canciones Populares Españolas, to accompany mezzo soprano Daniela Mack. At first, Mack’s operatic voice seemed a startling incongruity to the lounge atmosphere of the instrumental ensemble, and the rustic, unfiltered nature one expects from flamenco singing, but she seemed more at home with each passing song. After all, they were not presenting flamenco but reimagining it; therefore, we understood that her naturally polished, creamy tones worked more honestly than if she had affected a false imitation of the style. A strongly operatic vocal timbre finds itself no more out of place in the world of flamenco than a piano, especially in an evening exploring the bridges and connections among the various guises of the style throughout the decades. Thus, anything goes as long as you can sell it. Mack’s formal training allowed her to pull off some fireworks of her own, inspired by but not so-noted in the source.
Throughout the song set, the percussion duo explored their vast array of instruments familiar and unique: here is a djembe beat, there a sparkling key-chime (exactly what it sounds like); a jingling bunch of plastic bottle caps stand in for sea shells, and an assortment of hand percussion set the atmosphere of the characteristic pieces. Goryachev’s masterful guitar intros immediately transported the listener to a distant, dusty dance floor where the duende hangs in the smoke-filled shadows.
Violinist Chee-Yun joined the group for two works by flamenco legend Paco de Lucía, but due to the low range of her part she should have been mic’d more. Jeffrey Beecher also joined on upright bass in the first piece, Monasterio de Sal, making one want to hear a bona fide flamenco bass solo—luckily he got one in Entre Dos Aguas.
The second half sampled various short works, including one written by Lorca, and a piano arrangement of a chorus from Golijov’s La Pasión segun San Marco. During the opening bulería, it seemed at one point that Goryachev had to reorient the clapping percussion, but once they hit a flow, the effect was overwhelming. It’s no small feat to launch into a breakneck improv in a fast 1-2-3 4-5-6 7-8 9-10 11-12 rhythm, especially when it starts on the 12 rather than the 1. That Goryachev could recognize and put out that small fire while still soloing is a testament to his towering skill in the style. Kradjian joined the guitarist again for Albéniz’ El Albaicín, a work which, now as a duet, saw the guitar emerge from the original piano part to imitate it, a kind of un-arranging of Albéniz. This proved refreshing in a concert where most pieces got farther from, rather than closer to, their sources. Mack rejoined the duo for a tour de force rendition of Malagueña unlike anyone may have heard before. But Lorca’s La Tarara provided the best fit for Mack.
The whole instrumental ensemble returned for the final two numbers, the explosive Arabian Waltz by Lebanese composer Rabih Abou Khalil, where Chee-Yun’s soaring, rapid-fire violin took center stage, and Lucía’s Zyryab, where the whole ensemble traded solos with pulsating drive.
Their delicate balance in exploring the intersections of various musical styles and cultures evoked the Silk Road Ensemble. Performance must live and evolve, but it also must develop organically. For the most part last night’s arrangements worked well, about half taking on stylistic lives of their own. Perhaps in Reimagining Flamenco, that is the point.
Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.