Given the number of wannabe guitar heroes in Ottawa, I was somewhat surprised to see so many empty seats at Southam Hall for Thursday night’s NACO concert with legendary classical and flamenco guitarist Pepe Romero.
Granted, Romero was a replacement for Miloš Karadaglić, who had been scheduled to premiere a new guitar concerto by Howard Shore, but had to cancel in late 2016 because of an arm injury. Romero, who is also half of a famous duo with brother Angel, is by far the bigger name, in classical circles at least. Miloš is a popular crossover artist in Europe, but that hasn’t translated to an equivalent North American following (“who’s Miloš?” was a common refrain when I wrote about his cancellation.) I have to wonder if ticket sales would have been livelier had Romero been the featured soloist from the start.
Regardless, he’s here for one more performance, and really anybody who plays or loves the guitar has no excuse to not rush down to the NAC tonight for a masterclass in subtlety, colour, and transcendent musicianship.
Romero must have played Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but there was nothing blasé or clocked-in about his performance. The interpretation was wondrously fresh, delicate, and profoundly poetic; the presentation a balance of zen mastery and disarming humility.
Romero uses his immaculate technique and magical tone to conjure vivid scenes of Iberian charm, all fountains and gardens and Moorish palaces. The concerto’s second movement is so over-played that it’s almost a parody. Romero redeemed it, imbuing its filigree phrases with the grace and sadness of all the nightingales in Spain.
Shelley and the orchestra wove a noble, romantically coloured tapestry behind the soloist, although their translation of Rodrigo’s organic Spanish idioms came across as more stylized and less spontaneous than Romero. There were intimate, evocative solos by principal flute Joanna G’froerer, cellist Rachel Mercer, and Anna Petersen on English Horn.
As an encore, Romero played a spellbinding Fantasia by his celebrated father (and only teacher) Celedonio.
Two works inspired by film opened the concert. Nicole Lizée is consistently proving herself to be one of Canada’s most original and exciting composers. In the concise Zeiss After Dark (Thursday was the world premiere), she employs her preferred alchemy of phasing, Doppler-effect brass, and snappy techno rhythms to pay homage to the flickering lighting effects in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Shelley also served up William Walton’s gallant Henry V Suite with a healthy dash of Hotspur swagger; Walton’s dazzling Agincourt finale sounded virile and valiant.
Walton’s astonishing Symphony No. 1 took up the second half. It’s an imposing slab of a symphony, extraordinarily challenging for all the sections of the orchestra. Shelley’s clarity of intellectual analysis and unassailable technique really shine in big-bodied, structurally unforgiving works like this.
The first movement thrummed and pulsed with a kind of efficient, industrial passion. Walton marked the second movement Presto, “with malice”, and Shelley whipped the orchestra into a snarling, bickering frenzy. The last movement was both immense and immensely satisfying, the fugue section bluesy and loose, the ending a glorious riot of brass and tightly choreographed percussion (what a splendid effect, visually as well as aurally, from those double tympani!). Shelley was the calm center of control in the middle of all that grandiose sound and fury.
The program repeats at tonight’s Casual Fridays concert, without intermission, minus the Death of Falstaff movement from Henry V and the First and Third movements from the Symphony.