Beyond Postcards: Music of Spanish modernism unfolds at Mandel Hall

For a few decades at the beginning of the twentieth century, between the collapse of its fading colonial empire and the eruption of a civil war that led to three and a half decades of dictatorship, Spain saw a brief period of intense cultural revival. The painter Picasso and the philosopher Ortega y Gasset are internationally known, but other figures from this burst of Spanish modernism, including some of the most innovative composers of the twentieth century, have faded from popular memory. Their music and the contexts that produced it are the center of the festival, “Beyond Flamenco: Finding Spain in Music,” which takes the stage at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall this weekend.

The three nights of performances will focus on specific pieces by composers Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albéniz. The compositions will be framed by commentary from musicians, and from the Spanish novelist and art historian Antonio Muñoz Molina. The festival is organized by University of Chicago Presents and produced by the two founders of the Washington, D.C.-based Post-Classical Ensemble, American writer and music historian Joe Horowitz, and Spanish conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Their combined thematic and interdisciplinary approach is critical for the festival’s broader significance. “Through this music we are also examining what happened to Spain in the twentieth century,” says Gil-Ordóñez.

Under the dictator Francisco Franco, Spanish culture was administered by the state. Popular composers, including Joaquín Rodrigo, whose “Concierto de Aranjuez” is probably the most famous Spanish melody, were declared “official” composers of the fascist government. The music they produced stands accused of presenting a shallow, cosmetic image of Spanish tradition, with a simplified flamenco at its core. The musicians involved with the festival have a deep respect for flamenco tradition, but Horowitz explains that, “as popularized, it has become another one of those Spanish postcards. It can marginalize Spanish culture more than celebrate it.” The festival organizers hope that deep, directed listening will challenge this image of a picturesque and backwards Spain, which Muñoz Molina has summarized as “bullfighters, poverty, flies, and passion.”

Thursday night’s performance of Manuel de Falla’s “Concerto for Keyboard” is a centerpiece of the festival. In three short movements of a few minutes each, Falla condensed centuries of Spanish musical tradition; the first movement interprets the songs of the Spanish Renaissance, the second draws on sixteenth-century church music, and the third references the later keyboard school. The Chicago Chamber Musicians, with Gil-Ordóñez conducting, will play the concerto twice: once near the beginning of the evening, and again at the end. The material in between, including poetry from St. John of the Cross and choral music by the University’s Motet Choir, comes from the musical traditions that the Concerto references; the accompanying commentary will illuminate these connections. Muñoz Molina describes the effect of this educational listening: “The second time the concerto is played you have the physical experience of feeling your ears open.”

On Friday night, renowned Spanish pianist Pedro Carboné will play “Iberia,” a series of twelve pieces by composer Isaac Albéniz. Each piece evokes a different setting from Spain at the beginning of the twentieth century, from Granada’s gypsy quarter to a working-class neighborhood in Madrid. The “Iberia” is well-known in orchestral arrangements, but these abridged versions simplify the chromatically dense pieces to what Horowitz again calls “a selection of slick tourist postcards.” Carboné will play the epic “Iberia” as it was originally intended, on a single keyboard. Carboné and Molina will discuss how the piece prefigures the forms and techniques of modernism. On Saturday night, Ortiz will conduct Carboné and the University’s student orchestra in a program of orchestral music. In conjunction with the festival, an exhibit at the Smart Museum features drawings and sculptures by Julio González, and the classical music radio station WFMT (98.7 FM) will play twenty hours of Spanish music this week.

The festival coincides with Spain’s presidency of the European Union, and is co-produced by the Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones of the Spanish government and sponsored by both the Instituto Cervantes and the Consulate General of Spain in Chicago. “Beyond Flamenco” has yet to play for a Spanish audience, but the practice of redefining the parameters of national identity through a deep and collective listening of musical history has powerful significance for any audience. As Gil-Ordóñez suggests, “This music could be part of a future as well.”
Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St. March 4-6. Thursday-Friday, 7:30pm; Saturday, 8pm. (773)702-8068. $20/$5 students.