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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Symphony to Deliver ‘Impressions of Spain’

Violinist Elissa Lee Koljonen will perform Édouard Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole” — actually, a violin concerto — with the Santa Barbara Symphony.
Violinist Elissa Lee Koljonen will perform Édouard Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole” — actually, a violin concerto — with the Santa Barbara Symphony. (Courtesy photo)

The Santa Barbara Symphony, conducted by Nir Kabaretti, plays their next brace of concerts this weekend, at 8 p.m. Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday in their home venue, the Granada Theatre. The guest artists will be exciting young violinist Elissa Lee Koljonen and Flamenco dancer Laura Dubroca.

The program, bearing the title "Impressions of Spain," consists of Édouard Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole in D-Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 21 (1884); the Ballet Music from Jules Massenet's opera Le Cid (1885); the "Intermezzo" and "Dance" from Manuel de Falla's opera La Vida Breve/Life is Short (1913); and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol/Caprice on Spanish Themes, Opus 34 (1887).

This is clearly going to be a gorgeous and memorable concert, a gay (in the original sense) costume party where several great composers come dressed as Spaniards. The program, that is to say, emphasizes music that sounds Spanish, rather than music that is Spanish, and the only work by a composer native to the Iberian Peninsula, the Falla, is much the shortest. Also, La Vita Breve was written some three decades after the other three, which suggests that, as Dvorák taught American composers how to use American folk music to sound more American, so, two Frenchmen — three, if we count Georges Bizet — and a Russian illuminated a similar path for Spanish musicians.

Classical music didn't become nationalized until after the French Revolution (1789-1815) and the rise of nationalism that ensued. Then subject peoples like the Czechs and the Irish began to cultivate their native literatures, their native musical forms, to build national identities on them as a preface to separating themselves from the British, Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Romanov Empires. The international classical music of the 18th century, which reached its zenith with Ludwig van Beethoven, continued on its path in Germany, Austria, Franch and Italy throughout the 19th century. Spain, whose classical music came from the Italy of Boccherini, continued to produce more or less accomplished composers of international music through most of the century. Around 1900, with the work of Granados, Albeniz and Falla, Spain began, at last, to produce its own national sound, based on folk tunes.

What complicates the nationalism of Spanish music is the huge impact that the centuries-long presence of Islamic culture had on it. The Islamic armies landed in Spain in 711 A.D., and within 30 years, virtually all of the Peninsula was under Moorish rule. The last Islamic city, Granada, fell to the reconquering Christians in the year that Columbus sailed west, looking for China, and that Ferdinand and Isabella ordered all the Jews out of Spain: 1492. (The retaking of Spain by Christians is known as the "Reconquista.")

In the more than half a millennium between those dates, one would suppose, quite a lot of cultural melding took place. Many of the musical figures that sound to us most typically Spanish are, in fact, of Moorish origin. The Spaniards, famous for their pride, are naturally rather sensitive on this point.

Spain has two national-cultural heroes: One, Don Quixote, is entirely fictional, created by writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616); the other, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (c1043-1099), is an historical personage, a Castillian nobleman and military leader, who fought very successfully for the Kings of Castille, often with Moorish allies. Known as "El Cid," Rodrigo's life and deeds have become legends, mostly though the 12th century Castillian epic, now known as the Poema del Mio Cid. Yet, it was not this Spanish poem that was the basis for Massenet's opera, but the French tragedy, Le Cid (1637), by Pierre Corneille.

The title "Cid," however, is neither Spanish nor French, but arabic — "sidi" or "sayyid" — and means "lord," as a title of nobility, not divinity. Massenet's opera, which gives a similar light-classic spin to Corneille's classic as Gounod did to Goethe's Faust — is seldom performed these days, but the charming ballet music has hung on, maintaining a presence on modern programs, especially in pops concerts.

Tickets to this concert are $28 to $133, with special rates for seniors, students and groups. Discounted student tickets are available for $10 with valid student ID. Single tickets can be purchased from the Granada box office at 805.899.2222 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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