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Asheville Bravo Concerts hosted the State Symphony of Mexico in Thomas Wolfe Auditorium for the tenth of a 49-stop tour. Conductor Enrique Bátiz brought a well-disciplined corps of musicians and a well-balanced program including a guitar soloist. The aristocratic demeanor of Bátiz suggested an air of superiority, an impression that proved true throughout the evening.
Leonard Bernstein's Candide Overture started things off when the downbeat landed immediately after the musicians sat down. Every beat was in place, every pitch in perfect tune — the ensemble was brisk and tight, and this American "attention getter" fulfilled as an eye-opening start to the evening.
Next we heard Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, with Mexico's Alfonso Moreno as soloist. Moreno is not well known north of the border, so his appearance was anticipated as a window into Mexico's current state of playing and musicianship. He is a 20th-century player, meaning that he belongs more to the Segovia/Diaz school of techniques, and he produced a bright and broad palette of tone colors using a vigorous technique. Playing a cedar-top Abel Garcia guitar built in 1990, Moreno used conventional edits and rarely missed in a piece known for devilish and thorny demands. Bátiz reduced the orchestra size and employed amplification of the soloist, producing an exquisite balance between the soloist and the ensemble. Over a period of 35 years listening to many recordings and live performances of this work, this orchestral accompaniment was the best I've heard.
Prior to intermission we heard Sinfonia India (Symphony No. 2) by one of Mexico's favorite sons, Carlos Chávez (1899-1978). This single-movement work displays an interesting mix of near-modal melody with 20th-century harmony and distinctive percussion accompaniment. It features a long (c. 60 bars) tonic ostinato at the end: the increasing tension and crescendo propelled us all into the break. The tension and build-up were excellently sustained.
The lone work of the second half was the Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43, by Jean Sibelius. Though not indicated in the program, the work is in four movements, the last two played without pause, but after hearing the piece, perhaps no listings are necessary. If you were to play the work as a seamless whole, the effect would leave the impression of Mahler using mood elevators. The sunny disposition of this piece is very inviting.
Clearly, Bátiz relished this work. Where the pieces on the first half were familiar, repeated repertoire, nearly dismissed through the absence of flashy stick technique, here Bátiz was wholly engaged with his musicians in a new and fresh way. He was cueing sections, directing shades of dynamic texture, and energized with the brass and percussion sections in a way that suggested an advanced stage of rehearsal. While all sections performed to the highest standards, special mention should go to timpanist Sergio Quesada, equally adept at musical input and stick management.
If it were possible to have doubts about this great ensemble then all would be erased at this point. The State Symphony of Mexico is refreshing, professional, precise and passionate. The audience cheers, well earned, were rewarded by a single encore. The orchestra performed "Huapango," by José Pablo Moncayo, a single-movement orchestra work based on native Mexican folk dances.
Lacking from the program was reference to or performance of music by the other Mexican favorite son, Manuel Maria Ponce. In fact, when I heard a guitarist was on the program, I expected to find Ponce's Concierto del Sur programmed. Instead, we heard a different guitar concerto, one whose middle movement is playing – right now – in 85% of the world's elevators. When I asked Moreno about the programming choice he said the Ponce guitar concerto had been planned but presenters had requested a change to the Rodrigo piece — a clear case of commerce winning out over high art.
Note: This orchestra is making several appearances in NC. The remaining events (as of this posting) are:
Tuesday February 12 - Pembroke
GPAC: State Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, Enrique Bátiz, conductor
Givens Performing Arts Center, UNCP, Pembroke. 8:00 p.m.
$27/$25/$20, student/child $12, UNCP faculty/staff $15, UNCP students $5. 910/521-6361, 800/367-0778, or http://www.uncp.edu/gpac/
Wednesday February 13 — Greenville
ECU SRAPAS: State Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, Enrique Batiz, conductor
Wright Auditorium, Greenville, North Carolina, 7:30 p.m. Post-concert Dinner and Discussion available - call for details.
$32, students $10. 800/ECU-ARTS, or http://www.ecu.edu/ecuarts/cto.cfm [inactive 8/09].