Review: SCO, Josep Pons

First published in The Herald on 15 December, 2014

Manuel de Falla left Spain in 1907 and spent several years living in Paris, soaking up the music of the time. The colours of Debussy and Ravel and the inflections of early jazz are there in his later orchestral works, but he never lost his love for the traditional culture of his home country and his music is full of the heat and earthiness of folk tunes from around Spain. Think the pioneering ethnomusicologist-composers like Vaughan Williams or Bartok, flavoured with flamenco and gypsy rhythms.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra devoted the second half of this concert to de Falla’s ballet music: El amor brujo (Love, the Magician) and the first suite from El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat). There’s no conductor better placed to bring this feisty, evocative dance music to life than the Spaniard Joseph Pons, and he painted deft musical images without ever overdoing the brushstrokes. But there was a strange disjunction between the orchestra’s refined playing and the close, deep, husky microphone work of flamenco vocalist Maria Toledo. Yes, there’s an innate elegance and formality to flamenco, but the orchestra needed more grit and swagger to match her spirit.

Earlier, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin had sounded poised, weightless and similarly understated. Pons kept his beat straight and careful, building expression from the subtle rises and falls of phrasing rather than pulling around the tempo too much. The SCO winds sounded terrifically fluid. Antonio Meneses was the soloist in Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto. There were shaky passages and the outer movements needed more general panache, but Meneses is an unshowy, thoughtful player whose interaction with the orchestra was warmly conversational and whose quiet playing was graceful.