By Peter Alexander
Conductor Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra were joined by Spanish pianist Victoria Aja for a program of French and Spanish music Friday and Saturday, Oct. 3 and 4. The program was wonderfully planned, if somewhat uneven in execution on Saturday.
The first drawback of that performance was the venue, Broomfield Auditorium. Part of a larger complex that includes a public library, the auditorium looks like a barely completed warehouse, with an open ceiling that reveals pipes, light instruments, ducts and conduits. Spare stands and chairs are stacked on the edge of the stage, and a ladder can be seen backstage as the artists enter and exit.
More troubling than the inelegant appearance, however, is the sound. The stage is shallow and flat, and the hard concrete walls bounce the sound directly into the small seating area (fewer than 300 seats on the main floor), rather than blending it or in any way cushioning the sound waves, as more suitable acoustic materials would do.
Because the sound is so present, it was hard to achieve the needed balance and contrasts in the opening work, Manuel de Falla’s popular “Ritual Fire Dance” from El Amor Brujo. This exciting orchestral work was well played, but the winds—almost hidden on the flat stage—were often unbalanced, while the bright sound made it especially difficult to achieve the kind of dynamic contrasts that would give impact to the fiery climaxes.
The second work on the program introduced the soloist in de Falla’s impressionistic Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Normally a work for large orchestra, Saless used a chamber-orchestra version that suited his smaller ensemble. This version lost none of the score’s exotic color, but the reduced strings gave up some of the mysterious atmosphere of the original.
Clearly having a full grasp of de Falla’s style, Aja played with great flair and expression. Saless’s accompaniment was sympathetic, but the soloist sometimes struggled to be heard, even over the reduced orchestra, in the hall’s vivid acoustic environment.
The second, French half of the program fared better. César Franck’s Symphonic Variations treats the piano and orchestra not as contestants in a heroic concerto or as soloist with accompaniment, but as two equal partners that share the material. This disposition eliminates many of the balance problems the hall imposes.
Consequently, Aja could be heard as a thoroughly worthy partner to the orchestra. She certainly has the technique and the interpretive gifts to bring Franck’s somewhat academic work to life. I especially enjoyed the spirited final variations.
In this case, the greatest drawback was the size of the BCO. Saless said that the Symphonic Variations was written for a “Beethoven orchestra,” which might be true of the wind section. But when it was completed in 1885 (not 1955 as the program anachronistically stated), string sections of 50 or more had been commonplace for more than 20 years, whereas BCO only mustered about 30 for Saturday’s concert. (The program lists 34, but there did not appear to be that many on the Broomfield stage.) While the performance on the whole was satisfactory, the string section sound was audibly underweight in some full-bodied passages.
To close the program, Saless chose Bizet’s early Symphony in C major, written when the composer was a 17-year-old student in the Paris Conservatory. Both the size and the personnel of the BCO are ideally suited to this delightful work, which was pure pleasure from beginning to end. The spirited wind solos were notable throughout, and oboist Max Soto deserves special recognition for his lovely solos throughout the tender second movement.
In spite of any shortcomings, Saless’s thoughtful programming and Aja’s pianism afforded an enjoyable evening of music, topped off with Bizet’s refreshing little symphony. In a more hospitable performance space, such as the Methodist Church where the BCO performed on Friday, it may well have been even more satisfying.
# # # # #
NOTE: After intermission, Saless characterized the first half of the concert as “tapas” that preceded a main course of French cuisine. If you would like more than an appetizer of Iberian music—paella or a Spanish omelet, perhaps?—Aja is playing an entire solo piano recital of “Spanish Piano Masterpieces” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, in Grace Lutheran Church, Boulder. The program, about an hour to be played without intermission, will include music by Albéniz, de Falla, Joaquin Larregla and Padre Jose Antonio Donostia.
“A Night of Spanish Piano Masterpieces”
Victoria Aja, piano
Presented by the Boulder Chamber Orchestra
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10
Grace Lutheran Church, Boulder