Festival’s Farewell Flourish

Camerata RCO 36th Festival Internacional: Jameos Del Agua
Orquesta de Camara Rusa de San Petersburgo: Arrecife
36º Festival de Música de Canarias

The approach to the theatre once we were in Jameos del Agua took us through the foyer, down the rock staircase, then down the twisting white painted steps to the swimming pool, with the whole walk way beautifully, but discreetly lit. There was quiet a buzz in the air and much animated chatter, in several languages, about the incredible natural rock cave that the theatre is set in and about the many great musicians who have played here in the past. Set in the North of the island, the sky above the venue is almost unblemished and many people were craning their necks to see the cosmos seemingly laid out on the flat. As Tom Paxton once said in song, ´we listened to stars spreading rumours.´

The theatre doors opened for the penultimate performance of five concerts on Lanzarote presented by the 36th Festivial de Música de Canarias. There was no crazy stampede, though, just a hushed and civilised murmuring of ´after you,´ followed by a ´no, please after you.´ We entered the auditorium, from the top at the back and as every group of people looked down from the top step there was an audible gasp. The stage is set in a bowl at the bottom of huge rock walls, and a subdued lighting system gives it even added gravitas. The rows are laid out as cushioned benches in a huge semi-circle that serves as almost a wraparound blanket for the stage and as Dee and I took our seats for the recital I was thinking to myself that surely, of all the great players who have performed here, not many could have ever previously seen such a magnificent and unique performance area. It seemed to be some sort of Tolkien-esque great hall where the hobbits used to hold their feasts.

By the end of the evening, though, I was thinking, not only to myself but also aloud to anyone who would listen, that regardless of all the great musicians who have played here, surely none could have ever given a performance so uplifting, so moving and so absolutely sublime as this. The quartet’s opening offering invited us to a picnic with Dvorak and to high tea with Berg. Later we were invited by a fuller line-up to taste delicious, tantalising tapas from Mahler.

These recitals of exquisite playing simply took the breath away.

The vocal delivery of Soprano Judith van Wanroij was never either overpowering nor overpowered. Instead she skilfully slid her lines in and out the music and each instrument treated those lines not as a human voice but as another integral instrument in the ensemble.

I have seen several and several more classical concerts in the seven years that have elapsed since, but I did not engage with classical music at all, because of some vague sense of reverse snobbery (and fear) until I was sixty years old. Before that I had had only a brief encounter of the third kind with Holst and his planet suite, a Dulux colour coated notion of Dvorak and a vague awareness of Copeland through some old black and white westerns on TV that plagiarised his soundtracks.

What a different Dvorak I discovered here when a piano accordion, two violins and a violoncello played Bagatelles opus 47 B79 as four members of Camerata de la Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra de Amsterdam delivered the kind of echoes and chases that are heard too, of course, in the New World Symphony. There was, too, much of the excitement of new frontiers and the nostalgia of looking back on old homelands that we find elsewhere in Dvorak. The almost Dali-seque attire of a female violinist added much to the parades that Dvorak seemed to invariably plant in our minds eye, and that same outfit would also later perfectly complement the playfulness and frivolity of Mahler.

Her clothing, all jazz and pattern, was in direct contrast to the somehow beautifully still but nimble directing of musical director Lucas Macias, who totally enabled his ensemble in creating three very different moods.

Perhaps, in this ninety minute programme of the third concert on Lanzarote of the 36th Festival Internacional de Musica de Canarias, the most difficult of the pieces to control might have been the work of A. Berg (1985 – 1935).

His was not a name or a music known to me before tonight, but I will give you my impression of his music before I look him up on Google or any of the other fine search engines available to the public, as I am legally obliged to say.

It seemed to me his work was rather melancholy and carried a sadness of regret. The contributions of the Soprano seemed to confirm that to me, but it is easy to run away with an idea in your head if you are not an accomplished listener. So let’s check Google again. Yes. Here it comes. Alban Maria Johannes Berg was an Austrian composer of the Second Viennese School. His compositional style combined Romantic lyricism with the twelve-tone technique. Although he left a relatively small oeuvre, he is remembered as one of the most important composers of the 20th century for his expressive style encompassing ´entire worlds of emotion and structure.´

OK, Norm, close but no cigar. However, I ought to say that what I heard here tonight will certainly send me out in search of more of his music, and that must be part of the raison d’être of this wonderful festival.

There was then a short break, and after only a few minutes the four musicians from the first segment of the concert came back out, now as part of an ensemble of twelve or more.

There were added woodwind instruments, percussion of triangle and a huge drum, an upright double bass and a piano, and an incredible instrument I did not recognise so I cannot name it for you, but it went ´zipp when it moved and bop when it stopped and and whirrrr when it stood still´, just like Tom Paxton’s Marvellous Toy, and was the main maker of mischief and mayhem in an ensemble that seemed full of such characters.

What we were hearing was en Sol mayor of Sinfonia Number 4, by Gustav Mahler, who is described by Wikipedia as having been an Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation.

As a composer he acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. While in his lifetime his status as a conductor was established beyond question, his own music gained wide popularity only after periods of relative neglect, which included a ban on its performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era. After 1945 his compositions were rediscovered by a new generation of listeners.

Mahler then became one of the most frequently performed and recorded of all composers, a position his work sustained for him into the 21st century. In 2016, a BBC Music Magazine survey of over 150 conductors ranked three of his symphonies in the top ten symphonies of all time.

You can listen on You Tube to a dozen different offerings of the piece, but I doubt any would match this because; a) live is always better than recorded and b) this live performance was as much soundscape as classical music, and celebrated some of the works more populist passages as being exactly that.

The massive applause from the audience to the musicians at the end was returned in kind from the stage, as were the rounds of applause from conductor to his soprano and, individually to each of his players.
The players and vocalist all gave visible evidence of having enjoyed the evening and certainly Dee and I left believing we had seen and heard something very special.

It was a slight shame that the theatre was less than 100% full, and it was difficult to understand why that might have been the case. On this small island, however, there is such a plethora of art offerings that any event invariably has competition for its audience from events that are more easily geographically accessible and are perhaps less expensive in their admission cost.

In reply to all of that, though, let me offer some reassurance to any reader still here.

We drove up to the concert from our home in the southern-most tip of the island. The roads were clear and we had time for a snack at the beachside bar in Arrieta on the way in.

Car parking stewards were superb and there were none of the exhaust fumes and beeping horns that we associate with such events in the UK. As for the price I would say it was certainly less costly than seeing concerts of this quality in most other parts of the world. At this event alone we had seen a dozen and more world class musicians brilliantly bring classical music to contemporary relevance.

On the way into the theatre we had been given free copies of Textos Cantados (lyric sheets) and a free programme, and on the way out our paths were lit by ushers with torches. Only ten minutes after leaving the theatre we were out on to the road and on the way home and already happily looking forward to the next festival performance at El Salinero in Arrecife even whilst sadly aware that this would be the final festival event of this year’s Festival Internacional de Musica de Canarias

The final performers were The Russian Chamber Orchestra of St. Petersburg, founded in 1990 by musicians graduated from the renowned Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St. Petersburg, is undoubtedly one of the most important musical ambassadors in his country. The orchestra impressively reflects the musical talent and high level of musical education of his city. An extraordinary and extensive repertoire spanning Baroque to contemporary music has made it one of the most sought-after chamber formations in Europe.

Their numerous concerts in Europe, which have earned them the praise of critics and audiences, are complemented by record productions. The orchestra’s recent CD with works by Weber, published by Sony Music, received the coveted Editor’s Choice from Gramophone magazine.

The Russian Chamber Orchestra of St. Petersburg has performed in renowned halls and festivals such as the Gewandhaus Leipzig, Alte Oper Frankfurt, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Gasteig in Munich, Opera de Bayreuth, Teatro Real de Madrid, Teatro de la Sociedad Filarmónica de Bilbao, Theatre Municipal Luxemburg, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, Rheingau Music Festival, Izmir International Festival, Musique Festival in Vendée and Music Summer Weggis.

That would make a neat little package tour of most of the world’s great concert venues, wouldn’t it?

El Salinero held its own in the company of other such illustrious venues in so much as it drew a full house to the capital city’s theatre and the staff did a great job in quickly getting the night´s walk-on crowd, arriving without tickets, into the arena. It must be said that a good size audience can make car parking awkward and time consuming when there is a football match in the Deportivo stadium across the road and / or basketball in the sports hall, next to the theatre.

Tonight we had it all, and things were a bit chaotic, but fortunately the prompt and friendly service by the staff in The Davinia Restaurant at San Gines had enabled us to arrive at 8.15, in time to find one last parking space waiting to be claimed outside the football ground and being a season ticket holder at the club, I did so.

Dee and I, and friends Iain and Margaret, had been settled into the armchair comfort of our theatre seats for about five minutes when the musicians of Orquesta de Camara Rusa de San Petersburgo took to the stage, followed by their musical conductor Juri Gilbo in black tie and tails.

A frequent guest with orchestras around the globe, Juri Gilbo is one of Russia’s foremost and distinguished conductors on the international scene. He has been music director and principal conductor of the Russian Chamber Philharmonic St. Petersburg since 1998 and is credited with building this orchestra to the high standard it enjoys today. Born in St. Petersburg, his studies took him to the well-known St. Petersburg State Conservatory and subsequently to the University for Music and Performing Arts in Frankfurt, Germany. He studied viola with the celebrated German violist Tabea Zimmermann and conducting with Luigi Sagrestano.

Juri Gilbo made his conducting debut in 1997. Since then, his concerts have taken him to the USA, Europe, Latin America, Japan, China, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and the UAE.

Standing ovations have celebrated Juri Gilbo and his orchestra in sold-out halls such as the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, the Salzburg Festival House, the Munich Philharmonic Hall, Tonhalle Zurich, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Alte Oper Frankfurt, the Bayreuth Opera House, el Teatro National de Costa Rica and Istanbul Is Sanat. He has also performed at numerous renowned international festivals, including the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, Rheingau Music Festival, Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Izmir Festival, Haydn Festival Seoul and Al Bustan Festival Beirut, amongst many others.

We were whispering to each other that Iain thought he looked ´non-Russian´ and a bit like Arthur Askey and I thought he looked like a very young and gangly Eric Morecambe.

We had noted from the programmes, being given out for free by theatre staff as we had entered, that tonight’s recital included works from three composers. Noting the name of one of them Iain said his work sometimes sounded like he was describing in music the act of sawing wood, and one of the composers was an unknown name to any of us. The Schubert work, with its familiarity, held the most promise for us, but that would be in the second half.

For now, as the lights dimmed and the musical director poised his baton and his orchestra of twelve for action, we were about to hear Stravinski’s Apollo Musagetta (Ballet en dos actos).

I loved it, and it later transpired that we had all loved it. The aforementioned m.d. was something of a star; a Fred Astaire with a baton, all skips and jumps and twirls and sudden dramatic swoops. Far from in any way distracting the players he kept them alert and fully engaged and there were interesting pizzicato inclusions and clever works on the lower toned instruments. Sometimes the music felt to be chasing down marbled halls and at others relaxing in elycian fields. The Variacione de Pollinio, so full of grace and exciting pace, seemed to sag slightly in the middle, though surely as indicated in the score rather than any fault of the players. Juril Gilbo, though, constantly allowed a gentility of delivery that had us all holding our breath at the piquancy of some notes and had us thrown back into our seats at the power of others.

The twentieth century piece by Bonini was slightly too clever to be considered in any way carefree and slightly too disconnected to tell any discernable narrative. The instruments were occasionally used to represent the sounds of contemporary life in a busy world that, as such sounds often do, disturbed us as we made our way through the piece.
Nevertheless, the musicians delivered the work with aplomb and we were left to reflect on music that had, to me, managed to sound both sweet and somewhat sinister.

We spent a five minute ´pause´ in our seats chatting not only about what we had heard but also about what we had seen. I certainly felt that the nimble performance (and be in no doubt that it was a performance) by the director had enhanced the music for me, and even for his orchestra, to be honest. By watching him from our place in the audience I was beginning to learn which of his mannerisms and signals were preparing certain parts of the ensemble and how he led the tempo and rise and fall of volume, even as he enabled the players to deliver their interpretation of the mood of the music.

This was then again illustrated, even more clearly I felt, in the pieces by Schubert in the second half. Here we had more recognised and identifiable motifs than in the first half of the recital. Here each instrument had its say and the strings of the violins often spoke of one accord sometimes running skittishly away from us, as if tittering with laughter, and at others seemingly whispering gossip to each other. The musician on the upright bass sometimes was sneaking up on them, sometimes seeking to almost silence them, but on other occasions seeming to comfort them whenever anything disturbed them. The violoncellos were, we might imagine, warning of a need for discretion and reflection, and this orchestral sound filled this lovely theatre,

It being the final Lanzarote performance this year of the 36th Festival Internacional de Musica de Canarias it was fitting that the audience rose as one to call, in several languages, for more. We heard identifiable roars in French, German, English, Russian and Spanish as this audience demanded a well-earned encore that delivered to us a prancing polka and a thrusting tango from an ensemble that seemed to have fully enjoyed its evening.

The Festival had brought to The Canary Islands musician from all over the world, and composers from all across the classical music time spectrum.

Here on Lanzarote they had been rewarded by rapt attention from the traditional classical music followers on the island, some of it very knowledgeable, but also by some by people like us, still discovering what we missed in our youth by listening to Agadoo and The Birdy Song.

It is part of the purpose of producing these reviews to encourage people to feel more able to join in these events. We would like to see more new residents joining the indigenous population in attending these concerts, and even to attract the tourists who might only visit for a fortnight and otherwise might not think that events like this are available to them.

The festival had brought us a wonderful series of events, including two world class concerts in a world class caves, and that is certainly a sentence I never thought I would write.

We should be enormously grateful to the governments and Departments of Culture around The Canary Islands and to our own Cabildo for making this wonderful annual event possible, so if you’ve missed it this year, try joining us next time, and feel free to bring a friend.

The Cabildos and the organisers must be encouraged to return next year, and we hope that in 2021 you will remember these positive reviews and feel determined to join us.
In fact The Cabildo has already held a meeting to analyse some of the activities that have been carried out together in recent months, including the 36th International Music Festival of the Canary Islands with the aim of not only highlighting its successes but also of identifying any failures or problems there may have been so that they can corrected for the next editions. That is an admirable constant search for improvement, (on what is already by any measurement a marvellous annual event) that should see the event’s smooth evolution over the coming years.

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