Manuel de Falla and Richard Strauss: A Puppet Show In Contrast with a Tone Poem – Naomi Yoran

Last season, the conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos contrasted two known composers but so different in their music-style, structure & mood. These were Mendelssohn’s suite from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and Orff’s ‘Carmina burana’. I loved it! The PSO, Soloists & The Mendelsshon Chior were all brilliant in their performance and I had a sense that Fruhbeck was "bigger than life".

Last night’s program conducted once again by Fruhbeck was in many ways a contrast as well. In this case- Spanish and German music based on the same source: Servantes’ classic tale of ‘Don Quixote’: Manuel de Falla’s ‘Master Peter’s Puppet Show’ & Richard Strauss’ ‘Don Quixote, Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character’.

But: there was another contrast- As much as I enjoyed Strauss’ tone poem I got quickly tired of de Falla’s mini opera.

Let me start with de Falla: the music was lovely and the three soloists well integrated. (Soprano Awet Andemicael especially captivating!) but the puppets were such a distraction! This piece was commissioned by the Princess Edmond de Polignac to be performed first at her famous salon in Paris. (I will not be surprised if she was one of those Princesses by marrige who contributed to Marcel Proust’s characters of ‘Art Patroness’ in his monumental ‘In Search of Lost Time’, irony & all…) I do not know how much success this mini opera had at the time and I do not know how the stage was originally set, but I do know that de Falla arraigned this production to a suite for soloists & orchestra. I would have preferred if it would have been performed last night as such.

For once, the puppet theater occupied a good portion of the right part of the stage and the orchestra (although chamber in size) was at the left. To assure that we follow the plot (a loose adaptation of rescuing the captive princess Melisendra), an electronic board up above, at the back of the stage kept us in the know. Well, it was impossible to follow these three simultaneously. (And I sit at the ‘family circle’ where the sight lines are perfect! What about the audience at the main floor with a much wider angle of vision? Did they get a strained neck?) I finally stopped watching the puppets and concentrated on the orchestra. The musical motifs of Andalusia were forceful yet humorous. But by than my mind was wandering & my concentration gone.

In addition, the puppets appeared shabby, almost as "the best of what you can expect from a grade school production". Was this the original intention? May be. In any case, I would be glad to listen to the suite next time it will be performed. Semetime, too much becomes too little.

It was a great relief after the intermission. Strauss, the PSO, & the soloists (cellist Ralph Kirshbaum & vilolist Randolph Kelly -"our own") were splendid! The Tone Poem, structured as ‘theme-and-variations’ was romantic at times, humorous, even ironic, and finally tragic in mood. Although short in duration (just 30 minutes), it conveyed the essence of Don Quixote.

Richard Strauss rescued this concert. I have a feeling that the PSO’s musicians felt the same. I am eager to find out.

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