An Evening With Chicago Symphony Orchestra

After a whole day of travel from Los Angeles, Puffles and Honey just made it to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Beyond the Score concert on Friday night.

But there was enough time to change outfits ☺

An Evening With Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Beyond the Score is a musical experience like no other. Using live theater, stunning visual projections and orchestral excerpts played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, each installment immersed you in the compelling stories behind symphonic music. Or it used to. As it turns out, Puffles and Honey attended the last Beyond the Score concert.

After a decade of enchanting audiences, the final Beyond the Score show was focused on Nights in the Garden of Spain by early 20th-century composer Manuel de Falla. Creative director Gerard McBurney says it was inspired by the Alhambra palace in Granada. “It’s a piece about night and dreams, and the nighttime is always a good place to end a cycle of stories.”

Puffles and Honey have visited the Alhambra!

Puffles and Honey at the Alhambra
Puffles and Honey at the Alhambra

Passionately loyal to his ancestral roots in the far south of Spain, Manuel de Falla spent nearly 20 of the most intense years of his composing life in the beautiful and historic city of Granada in Andalusia.

What so powerfully drew him there was the richly diverse culture of this ancient world, with its exotic blend of Islamic, Christian, Jewish and Romany traditions; its fabulous architecture and landscapes; and most of all, the unforgettably heart-rending and world-famous music of flamenco — its sensual dancing, strummed guitars and deep song, the cante jondo, which Falla himself called the purest and oldest of all the different forms of gypsy music.

From such stunningly beautiful material, Falla created his own timeless world, a dream-like Spain of hot and perfumed nights, tragic passions and dark incantations.

Beyond the Score was an exploration of the orchestral work and its composer, the compelling story of the composer’s life and art unfolding through the program, illuminating the world that shaped the work’s creation.

Beyond the Score put great pieces of music into the context of the lives and times that created them. The shows included actors, a narrator, video and the full orchestra; the result at its best was a powerful sort of documentary theater that anchors and enhances the music.

It was the brainchild of Gerard McBurney, who, along with the CSO, used the city’s pool of actors, dancers, folk musicians and video artists and outsiders including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and architect Frank Gehry to bring to life what was going on in the composer’s life and the world at the time of the work’s creation.

McBurney took part in the final program, and his theatrical sensibility was everywhere in the presentation. The Chicago actor Matthew Krause, who also impersonated Igor Stravinsky in Beyond the Score examination of “The Rite of Spring”, had the composer role of Falla. The narration – by McBurney along with Chicago actors Sandra Delgado (who played Falla’s friend Maria Martínez Sierra) and Matthew Krause – largely relied on Falla’s own words and the words of those who knew him to convey how he thought of music, as well as poetry by Lorca. The influences that Debussy, Wagner and other leading composers had on him were interwoven with discussion of cante jondo, the iconic gypsy sounds that had such an impact on Falla’s work.

An Evening With Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Federico García Lorca is widely regarded as the greatest Spanish poet of the twentieth century while Manuel de Falla is Spain’s most performed composer of the same period. The two were very different – Lorca was gay, liberal, and a member of the avant-garde, while Falla was a devout Catholic – yet they had a profound mutual influence. The two developed an intimate friendship, which ended when Lorca was shot by Nationalist forces at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

Charles Dutoit conducted the two enchanting scores by Manuel de Falla, Nights in the Gardens of Spain and The Three-Cornered Hat. One of Spain’s most exciting young artists, Javier Perianes, was the soloist for the atmospheric Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

An Evening With Chicago Symphony Orchestra

An Evening with Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The CSO program notes were most informative.

In 1921, when he was the most celebrated Spanish composer alive, Falla settled in Granada, in a cottage surrounded by roses, honeysuckle, and jasmine, with an arbor and a small fountain. At the top of a nearby hill sat the great Alhambra — the fortress of the Moorish kings that Falla had famously drawn in music in his Nights in the Gardens of Spain. At the time he began the score, more than a decade earlier, Falla was living in Paris and had never even been to Granada; he knew about the Alhambra only from an inexpensive book he bought at a bookstall on the rue de Richelieu. (He was so captivated that he stayed up all night reading it.)

Nights in the Gardens of Spain began as a set of nocturnes for solo piano. Falla started sketching in 1909, the year his colleague Isaac Albéniz died, depriving Spain of one of its best-known composers. (When Enrique Granados died in 1916, less than a month before the premiere of Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Falla was thrust into his new role as the country’s preeminent composer.) Ricardo Viñes, the great Catalan pianist who introduced many of Debussy’s and Ravel’s works, suggested that Falla turn the nocturnes into a piece for piano with orchestra. Falla took his recommendation to heart, but this change in direction further delayed completion of the score. As Falla became better known in Paris, particularly after the success of his opera La vida breve in 1913, the long-awaited work became legendary in the city’s music circles.

When Falla fled to Spain as war broke out in August 1914 (he was in such a hurry to catch a train that he lost his toupee en route) the nocturnes, now called Nights in the Gardens of Spain, were still unfinished. Shortly after returning to his homeland, Falla visited the Alhambra for the first time, in the company of his friend Maria Martínez Sierra, who noticed his “satisfaction at having guessed, with the help of some book, the charm which he had never seen before.”

After settling briefly in Madrid, Falla lived for several months in the beach town of Sitges, near Barcelona, where he put the finishing touches on Nights in the Gardens of Spain. He worked on an old, out-of-tune piano in El Cau Ferrat, the home of the popular painter Santiago Rusiñol, fine-tuning his sense of orchestral color in a house filled with his host’s evocative canvases of Spanish gardens. (It was once believed, erroneously, that these paintings were the inspiration for the score.)

Nights in the Gardens of Spain is neither a concerto, although it’s scored for a solo piano with orchestra, nor a tone poem, even though it vividly portrays the spirit of a place. Falla referred to it simply as “symphonic impressions”. The piano role, prominent but rarely dominant, is characterized by elaborate, brilliant and eloquent writing. (Falla’s piano teacher studied with a pupil of Chopin.) The score is dedicated to Viñes, who didn’t play the first performance, but, like the composer himself, often performed the work in public in later years. The orchestral writing is lush but never excessive; it’s Falla’s most “impressionistic” (and arguably his most “French”) score, and, as an evocation of atmosphere and setting, it ranks with Debussy’s and Ravel’s greatest symphonic works.

Falla depicts three gardens. The first is the celebrated Generalife, the jasmine-scented gardens surrounding the summer palace of the king’s harem at the Alhambra. (The word “Generalife” comes from the Moorish “Jennat al Arif”—the builder’s garden.) “Nowhere,” wrote Alexander Dumas, “were so many orange trees, so many roses, so many jasmines gathered in so small a place . . . . Nowhere will you see so many springs, so many leaping waterfalls, so many rushing torrents.” And they’re all gathered here in Falla’s wondrously evocative and fragrant music.

The second movement, set in an unidentified distant garden, is an exotic dance. The piano, with its arabesques, trills, arpeggios and stomping octaves, suggests a guitar, then a dancer, and later a singer. Without pause, Falla transports us to festivities in the Sierra de Córdoba. Music historians like to attribute this brilliant finale to the zambra gitano — a night festival characterized by lively gypsy dancing and singing traditionally held for the feast of Corpus Christi. But Falla, no fan of explicit program music, didn’t care to be pinned down. As he wrote:

If these “symphonic impressions” have achieved their object, the mere enumeration of their titles should be a significant guide to the hearer. Although in this work — as in all which have a legitimate claim to be considered as music — the composer has followed a definite design regarding tonal, rhythmical, and thematic material… the end for which it was written is no other than to evoke places, sensations and sentiments.

The themes employed are based (as is much of the composer’s earlier work) on the rhythms, modes, cadences and ornamental figures which distinguish the popular music of Andalusia, though they are rarely used in their original forms; and the orchestra frequently employs, and employs in a conventional manner, certain effects peculiar to the popular instruments used in those parts of Spain. The music has no pretensions to being descriptive; it is merely expressive. But something more than the sounds of festivals and dances has inspired these “evocations in sound,” for melancholy and mystery also have their part.

One of music’s great international collaborative efforts, The Three-Cornered Hat began life in 1916 as a modest pantomime called El corregidor y la molinera (The magistrate and the miller’s wife). (The 1875 novel by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, on which it’s based, also is the source for Hugo Wolf’s 1896 opera Der Corregidor.) Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes were visiting Madrid during the initial run of El corregidor, and the impresario asked Falla to transform it into a ballet, expanded and rescored for large orchestra. (Diaghilev had been urging Falla to write something for his troupe for years — at one point, they talked seriously about producing Nights in the Gardens of Spain as a ballet.) In no time, Diaghilev put together an extraordinary cast of characters for Falla’s ballet, with Léonide Massine as choreographer and Pablo Picasso as designer.

To help devise the choreography, Massine took flamenco lessons from Felix Fernandez Garcia, a phenomenal dancer whom Diaghilev found in a working-class café in the back streets of Madrid and persuaded to join the company as the star of the new ballet. (Massine also admitted to finding many beautiful poses in bullfighting.) Picasso designed sets and costumes that were characteristically witty and brilliant, and devised a front drop curtain depicting a bullfight in ochre, pale pink, white, blue, and gray that was so magnificent that Falla wrote some new music at the last minute just to show it off. (Picasso finished painting the curtain during final rehearsals.)

Shortly before the premiere, Garcia became ill and Massine had to take over his role. And on the afternoon of the first performance, Falla was summoned by telegram back to Madrid to his mother’s deathbed, and Ernest Ansermet stepped in to conduct. But The Three-Cornered Hat was a triumph, and Massine later said that of his more than one hundred ballets, it was the one of which he was most proud. (He continued to dance the role of the miller into the 1950s.) Misia Sert gave a post-premiere party at which Rubinstein played the piano and Picasso drew a laurel crown on the composer’s bald head with his hostess’s eyebrow pencil. (Incidentally, The Three-Cornered Hat was the last ballet danced by Diaghilev’s company, on August 4, 1929, a fortnight before the impresario’s death.)

The Three-Cornered Hat begins with the brief introduction Falla added to show off Picasso’s curtain—a minute or so of pounding drums and sizzling castanets (used sparingly elsewhere in the score), as trumpet fanfares and shouts of “olé” set off a young woman’s warning:

Casadita, casadita, cierra con tranca la puerta;
que aunque el diablo esté dormido !a lo mejor se despierta!

Little wife, little wife, fasten your door with a bar;
even if the devil is asleep now, when you least expect it he’ll wake up!

Afternoon. The miller tries to teach his pet blackbird to imitate the striking of a clock. (The bird resists until the miller’s wife bribes him with grapes.) The miller draws water for the garden (the wheel squeaks noisily, in the piccolos and violins). A dandy passes by and flirts with the miller’s beautiful wife. The corregidor, wearing the huge three-cornered hat that is his badge of office, now enters.

Dance of the Miller’s Wife. Pretending not to notice the corregidor, the miller’s wife dances a fandango. He tries to get her attention by bowing to the ground (a low-lying bassoon solo). She curtsies, to seductive string chords.

The Grapes. The miller’s wife teases the corregidor with a bunch of grapes held just out of reach. Humiliated, he storms off while the miller and his wife continue the fandango.

The Neighbors’ Dance. That evening, Saint John’s Eve, the neighbors celebrate by dancing a seguidilla (Falla refashions a gypsy song from Granada).

The Miller’s Dance. The miller begins to dance. In his memoirs, Massine recalls:

I began by stamping my feet repeatedly and twirling my hands over my head. As the music quickened I did a series of high jumps, ending with a turn in mid-air and a savage stamp of the foot as I landed… The mental image of an enraged bull going into the attack unleashed some inner force which generated power within me… For one moment it seemed as if some other person within me was performing the dance.

A knock at the door — parodying the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — announces soldiers who have come to arrest the miller, on the corregidor’s orders. Once again, a female voice sounds a warning:

Por la noche canta el cuco advirtiendo a los casados
que corran bien los cerrojos !que el diable esta desvelado!

The cuckoo sings in the night warning husbands
to fasten their latches as well, for the devil is vigilant!

The cuckoo clock strikes nine (answered by the learned blackbird).

The Corregidor’s Dance. The corregidor, thinking himself a true Don Juan, approaches and dances a courtly number. In the dark, he falls into the mill stream. The miller returns to find the corregidor’s clothes hung up to dry, misconstrues the evidence, puts on his rival’s outfit, and sets off to try his luck with the corregidor’s wife.

Final Dance. The finale, propelled by mistaken identities and general confusion, eventually ends happily, with the miller and his wife reunited. The villagers toss the corregidor into the air, and everyone joins in the jota, a wild dance from Aragon.

An Evening With Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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