By Joseph Cortes,VERA Files
The Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra's recent concert "Deleon & Arutiunian" was a mixed bag of sorts. All the works performed that night were technically premieres because the PPO has no record of having played these pieces in its 39 years of existence. Two were tone poems, while the other two were virtuoso concertos. On the program that evening were Bedřich Smetana's "Vltava" from his symphonic cycle Ma Vlast, Edouard Lalo's Cello Concerto in D Minor, Alexander Arutiunian's Trumpet Concerto, and Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite.
The evening opened with Smetana's "Vltava." This tone poem, a musical depiction of the Vltava River, is an orchestral masterpiece. To discover that the PPO has no record of having performed this piece was surprising.
Smetana's tone poem follows the Vltava from its source where two streams join together and unite into the river that flows through the Bohemian countryside. The music changes character as it rolls along, musically interpreting a country wedding, wood and water nymphs reveling on a moonlit night, the long lost splendor of a feudal past, the river speeding down a waterfall before entering Prague, and its disappearance in the distance away from the listener.
PPO associate conductor Herminigildo Ranera guided the orchestra in an accomplished performance of this piece. The orchestra didn't really achieve the quietness required in parts of this work, but it did not fail to deliver the bombast needed in the waterfall section of the work. Ensemble work was a little bit unclear in some parts. If indeed it was the PPO's first time to perform this masterpiece by Smetana, it did well in conveying the music's substance.
The highlight of the evening was trumpeter Raymond Deleon's performance of the Arutiunian concerto. Deleon, who is now based in the United States, won three first prizes in the National Music Competition for Young Artists (NAMCYA) as a student, has placed in various musical competitions abroad and won first prize in the Seattle Philharmonic Don Bushell Concerto Competition in 2011.
Arutiunian's music resembles that of his Armenian compatriot Aram Khachaturian. The Trumpet Concerto, which was first performed in 1950, is infused with melodies that have an Armenian folk sensibility for a memorable concerto known for its virtuoso solo passages.
The piece starts with the trumpet blazing heroically over the orchestra. Through seamless movements that follow the standard formula of fast-slow-fast sections, the soloist is called upon to display his ability to deliver legato and staccato notes that is breathtaking to listen to. Deleon had no difficulty performing these passages. His ability to literally spit out all those short notes was simply dazzling, as well as his ability to pare down his tone to a whisper from fortissimo passagework. The concerto's 15-minute duration, while short from some music lovers, show off a trumpet player's art.
For encores, Deleon performed the famous Variations on "Carnival of Venice" and an improvisation on Gershwin's "Summertime." At the end of the variations, the audience broke out into lusty applause for such is the technical demands of this piece. The soloist never disappointed that evening.
It was curious that the concert did not mention Spanish cellist Iñaki Etxepare, who was featured soloist in Lalo's Cello Concerto, in the concert title. The piece, which is rarely played nowadays, is a display piece for the soloist who has to play nonstop for the almost 30-minute duration of the work. The Lalo concerto is not in the same league as the more famous concertos for cello by Dvořák, Elgar and Walton. Although blessed with charming melodies, the piece lacks the gravitas and sense of occasion of these better known works. The orchestral writing, while supportive of the cellist, tends to call to itself, oftentimes intruding into the reverie cast by the soloist.
But you wouldn't know that from Etxepare's performance. The Basque cellist has made the Lalo concerto his calling card to success in France. In its three movements, the soloist goes from a succession of lyrical and virtuoso music, the orchestra following with its accompaniment. The Basque cellist was at his best in his solo moments, his tone full and robust. Problems with intonation only surfaced by the piece's end when the orchestra stepped to provide musical support. By then, the concerto had reached its end.
As encores, Etxepare performed Basque folk pieces, in one piece even accompanying the music with his singing, a pleasant surprise; it is a rare that an instrumentalist adds voice to his performance. Perhaps, the cellist could perform with the PPO in the future performing a more familiar piece, perhaps some Vivaldi or Boccherini or even in the Beethoven Triple or Brahms Double concertos.
The evening's finale was a rousing rendition of Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite. Grofe's orchestral masterwork takes its cue from Debussy's La Mer, which depicts the sea in its various guises during the day. However, the comparison ends there. The American composer, who is known more for his orchestrations of the music of George Gershwin, while inspired is not in the same league as the French impressionist composer. His masterful use of effects made the piece a popular one, especially during the heyday of American radio in the early 20th century. The piece is often performed in orchestral pop concerts.
Ranera led the PPO in a committed performance the Grofe composition, maximizing the use of percussion in a work filled with aural splendor. The colorful break of dawn, the footfalls of donkeys lumbering up a mountain trail, and the thunderstorm that closes the day, came across vividly.
When the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra celebrates its 40th anniversary on January 2013 concert, it will be doing so with a commission, the first violin concerto by popular Filipino composer Ryan Cayabyab. It will be interesting to hear how orchestra and composer will be teaming up in this unique show. That is a show that should prove to be a magnet for classical music lovers in the country.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")