No Dude, but conductor duo share BSO podium duties with aplomb

April 12, 2019 at 12:58 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

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James Burton, with soloists Aquiles Machado and Gustavo Castillo, conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Chorus in Antonio Estévez’s “Cantata Criolla” Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Antonio Estévez’s Cantata Criolla, a work little heard outside the late composer’s native Venezuela, is a favorite of celebrated countryman Gustavo Dudamel, who planned it as the centerpiece in his second week of concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra beginning Thursday night at Symphony Hall. But with Dudamel out for the rest of the series due to the lingering effects of a hand and arm injury he sustained in a fall in December, Tanglewood Festival Chorus conductor James Burton fortuitously stepped in to lead Estévez’s cinematic work in its first-ever BSO performance.

Though Dudamel’s presence was missed in the originally scheduled program of Latin American music, Thursday’s concert, filled out with familiar Ravel and Berlioz led by associate conductor Ken-David Masur, delivered its own musical rewards.

Estévez wrote Cantata Criolla between 1947 and 1954 as an expression of populist nationalism that ran up against the military dictatorship that controlled Venezuela at the time. The text by Alberto Arvelo Torrealba tells of a singing contest between Florentino, a wandering coplero from the plains, and the Devil. Writing with the melodic sweep of mid-century film score, Estévez sets this Faustian duel as a kind of shoot-out between hero and villain.

Across its thirty-minute expanse, Cantata Criolla mixes serene harmonies with the churning dance rhythms of Venezuelan folk music. The score paints images of the country’s rolling plains as vividly as Aaron Copland’s popular cowboy ballets do the American West — hills, towns, tumbleweeds and all. But this is no rural paradise. Sweeping melodies laced with biting dissonances depict a harsh, desolate wilderness through which few people travel.

Florentino, sung by tenor Aquiles Machado, came across as a rugged though confident individual willing to do battle with anyone who dares cross his path. Machado’s warm and boldly projected singing conveyed palpable humanity and bravado. As the Devil, baritone Gustavo Castillo cast a calculating and seductive presence, and sang with dark conviction in his brief solo turns.

The duel itself featured the vocal combatants in a display of surging intensity. As Castillo sang with smooth tone and authority, Machado delivered his tongue-twisting text with precision and zeal, his character’s performance seeming to leave the Devil in the dust.

Harpists, flutists, and brasses rendered the duel scene with the verve of a village band. Burton’s swift gestures coaxed robust accompaniment to match the singers here and in the opening, where he shaped the orchestral themes with keen attention to Estévez’s broad melodies and colorful tone painting.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by Burton, sang the choral sections with clear diction, fine blend, and prayerful intimacy. The final passages of Cantata Criolla quote a Gregorian chant in praise of the Virgin Mary and the Trinity. Even from the wilderness, Estévez’s music yearns for heaven.

Ken-David Masur conducted Ravel's Piano Concerto in G with Sergio Tiempo as soloist. Photo: Robert Torres

Ken-David Masur conducted Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with Sergio Tiempo as soloist. Photo: Robert Torres

Pianist Sergio Tiempo, making his BSO debut with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, was the evening’s other welcome surprise.

Having such a blazingly difficult score on hand for a last-minute performance — Tiempo was originally scheduled to perform Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 1—is a testament to the Venezuelan pianist’s skill and musicianship. His technique is firm and commanding without being overblown, and the cascading runs that twist through the concerto’s outer movements carried weight in all registers.

Yet Tiempo was equally capable of finding the searching delicacies of the work’s quieter moments. The simple, Satie-like theme of the second movement unfolded elegantly as Tiempo’s lines softened to hauntingly distant-sounding tones. Conductor Masur, using a light touch, wove a sensitive accompaniment in response.

Ravel’s concerto spotlights the orchestra as much as the piano, and each movement brimmed with clear and resonant wind solos. In the first, the trumpet theme coursed vibrantly, with bluesy wah-wahs and snarling sonorities from the low brasses bringing an edge to the movement’s finale. In the second, Robert Sheena’s English horn solo wound threadlike around Tiempo’s soft, bell-toned harmonies.

The performance drew rapturous applause, and Tiempo turned on the heat with his encore, a percussive and vigorous rendition of the “Danza del gaucho matrero(“Dance of the clever cowboy”) from Ginastera’s Three Argentinian Dances.

The concert’s opener, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, had just as much vitality. In Masur’s hands, this familiar score took on a sprightly, Italianate exuberance that would be at home in one of Rossini’s overtures. With careful eye to detail, Masur navigated the wide divergences between the lyrical and the energetic — between song and dance — in Berlioz’s score. Sheena’s English horn solo flowed like an aria, and the brasses adorned the final propulsive phrases with powerful fanfares to bring the overture to a rousing conclusion.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. The Ravel and Estévez works will make up the Casual Friday program 8 p.m. at the same location. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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