Friday, February 27, 2015

A Mexican symphony orchestra is welcomed with consular recognition and an enraptured audience to Carmel's Palladium

Enrique Bátiz elicited splendid playing from his orchestra
The homeland salute was reserved for two spacious encores, but there was no doubt about hemispheric solidarity with the Mexican diaspora Thursday night at the Palladium, when the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico played a well-received concert under the baton of its founder, Enrique Bátiz.

Opening speeches including  bilingual welcomes by the Center for the Performing Arts' CEO, Cuban-born Tania Castroverde Moskalenko,  and Jorge Sánchez, Mexican consul in Indianapolis. About those encores: The concert's soloist, guitarist Alfonso Moreno, offered a tender Mexican love song, Un Viejo Amor, accompanied by several of the string players. At the end of the printed program, Bátiz led the orchestra in a long, splashy evocation of Mexico, followed by a rousing salute to the host country in the form of John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell" march.

The announced program comprised a first half with the musician's cultural connection to Spain intact.  Joaquin Turina's Danzas Fantásticas is a tripartite survey of Andalusian dance forms, imaginatively combined and transformed. It's a tidy suite that put the audience on notice that the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico's sound favors breadth and splendor. The performance also showcased superior solo playing, of which sometimes amazing exhibitions were to come later as well.

Moreno's sturdy, soulful account of the most famous of guitar concertos — Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez — followed. A nimble player in the outer movements, his singing tone in the work's frequent melodic moments actually benefited from not being too pristine.  It had a folk-inflected vigor, with a little roughness at the edges, and a winning soulfulness.

As for the orchestra, a lovely four-note French horn phrase between the long English-horn solos in the well-known slow movement indicated that more good things would be heard from this player in Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F major, which occupied the concert's second half. The assertive launch of the first movement, however, tended to confirm my impression that absolute precision is not a priority with this orchestra. Unity is a concept that, on the evidence of this concert, is designedly an overall achievement — more a matter of leaning into the sound and expression of musical paragraphs than making sure each "sentence" is neatly finished.

The exposition was repeated, which allowed the music to become a little firmer and conform more to the international orchestral standard. The horn section came through handsomely as the piece proceeded, and  the bassoons were also superior, soaring and creamy-toned.  The ensemble unity was remarkable in the finale, considering the slight imprecision that had been more characteristic earlier. True, the interpretation did not represent the last word in expressive warmth, but it was always sonorous and well-balanced.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the choice of two of three works with quiet endings was a deliberate way to highlight the high-energy first encore, putting a firm "made in Mexico" stamp on the orchestra's debut appearance in this area. From the standpoint of showmanship, such programming savvy achieved the desired effect with the audience.

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