Mexican Orchestra Brings Rare Ponce Piano Concerto to San Diego

Irina Christiakova [photo courtesy of CAMI & the San Diego Symphony]

Irina Christiakova [photo courtesy of CAMI & the San Diego Symphony]

Largely due to La Jolla Music Society’s programming, we can count on regular visits from European orchestras every season. Last month they imported the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and later this month on March 29 the London Symphony pulls into town with Michael Tilson Thomas as conductor.

But foreign orchestras from our own hemisphere are rarely heard in San Diego, so I was eager to attend Friday’s (March 13) concert by the Orquesta Sinfónica del Estado de Méxio at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. Especially since they were playing a piano concerto by the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, a work I had never encountered in the concert hall.

Although the program book titled this work Piano Concerto No. 1: “Romantic,” the WikiPedia entry for Ponce calls this piece “Concierto Romántico for piano and orchestra” (1910) and lists no other piano concertos by him. It is hugely romántico in the ways the piano concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are Romantic, brandishing soaring, arched themes, pulsing with emotion, and offering the piano soloist ample bravura opportunity. Ponce finished this work shortly after he returned from several years of study in Italy and Germany, where these Russian piano concertos would have been fresh and new.

So it could not have been more appropriate the orchestra’s conductor Enrique Bátiz to engage as soloist the Russian virtuosa Irina Christiakova for the Ponce Concerto. She brought her amazingly supple technique and unstinting emotional communication to the concerto, not to mention a quite instinctive empathy for its vibrant style.

Like most concertos, this 25-minute work is divided into the typical three contrasting sections (fast-slow-faster), although it plays continuously without any breaks. In the middle movement, Andante espressivo, I enjoyed the several piano solos that brought to mind the late intermezzos of Brahms, which Christiakova played with heartfelt affection, the apt contrast to her fiery cadenzas. Ponce’s Concierto Romático deserves wider attention, if for no other reason than those big Russian warhorse piano concertos are so mindlessly overprogrammed.

Christiakova also joined the orchestra in Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain,” an impressionistic piece that is not quite a concerto, but rather an orchestral work that uses the piano as another contrasting solo color. The orchestra, similar in size to our San Diego Symphony, offered its best work in the Ponce and de Falla, producing a full, warm body of sound and displaying solid ensemble discipline. Although the program did not provide a roster, the outstanding soloists were the first-chair trumpet, oboe, and cello players.

On the program’s opening half, we heard yet another concerto, Joaquín Rodrigo’s evergreen Concierto de Aranjuez, with the Mexican guitarist Alfonso Moreno as soloist. Overall, the tempos chosen by Moreno and Bátiz stayed on the slow side, which proved pleasant enough in the opening Allegro con spirito, but made the middle Adagio deliberate to the point of exasperating. Accustomed to the bright, highly articulate interpretations of this popular guitar concerto by the brothers Angel and Pepe Romero, I found Moreno’s approach sentimental and timid.

As a conductor, Bátiz appeared cleanly disciplined but metronomic, although his players evidently gave him what he wanted. He opened his concert with Enrique Granados’ “Three Spanish Dances,” idiomatic transcriptions of popular piano solos by one of Spain’s great nationalist composers that gave the orchestra’s polished woodwind players much opportunity to shine.

Orquestra sinfónico del estado México [photo courtesy of CAMI & the San Diego Symphony]

Orquestra sinfónico del estado México [photo courtesy of CAMI & the San Diego Symphony]

 Symphony program & bios


  1. Tom McDowell on March 14, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    I was pleased to read Mr Herman’s review of this concert and believe it was fair and accurate on the whole. The pianist, Christiakova, displayed an astounding ability to combine great force with remarkable sensitivity. The Ponce concerto, unknown to me, was enjoyable and I was pleased that they included this work on the program. I adore the De Falla piece “Nights in the Gardens…” and have owned various recordings of it over the years and found the performance by the Sinfónica del Estado with Bátiz flawless and engaging. Every detail of the piece was lovingly captured and communicated. For me, live music just does not get any better than this.
    As for the Rodrigo concerto, the tempo in the first movement was a bit slow for my taste but I had no trouble with the tempo of the adagio in the Rodrigo concerto. This was a more intimate approach to the work and the guitarist communicated this very well to those of us in the front orchestra.
    Overall, I was very impressed with the orchestra, especially the clarity and precision of the strings. I am not sure how Bátiz has managed to accomplish this clarity of sound, but it is impressive. Based on my experience with live performances of most of the major orchestras in the US, this orchestra from Mexico appears to be their equal in many respects. What a great night to get to symphony hall!

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