Kristjan JärviLeft - Conductor Kristjan Järvi. Photo © Peter Rigaud

Last Thursday evening in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra presented ‘Latin American Nights’ - a programme of exciting and captivating music by Argentinean composers Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla, and also Mexico’s Silvestre Revueltas.

‘Latin American Nights’ began with the four dances from Ginastera’s ‘Estancia’, a ballet suite which represents an entire day and a journey of young love. Under the direction of Estonian born conductor Kristjan Järvi, the orchestra convincingly captured the atmosphere of the Argentinean pampas and the vital spirit of the gauchos who wandered across that vast countryside.

Ginasteras wrote ‘Estancia’ in his period of ‘objective nationalism’ (1934-1947) and the piece, characterized by Argentine musical themes in a direct tonality, displays folk and popular influences. The orchestra splendidly executed ‘Estancia’ and apart from the thrilling music, a highlight of the performance was watching Järvi at work. This conductor is so energetic and in charge of his orchestra that at times he appears to be dancing on the podium. Dressed in black tails and with pop star good looks, I couldn’t help but imagine Mr. Järvi strutting his stuff on the dance floor of a nightclub or riding frantically on horseback with whip in hand across the Argentinean plains! It was refreshing indeed to see and hear such a lively performance.

Next up on the programme was Piazzolla’s ‘Aconcagua’, a concerto for bandoneon written in 1979. Invented by Heinrich Band, the bandoneon is a cross between a concertina and a button accordion and at ten kilos requires much strength and dexterity to play. Although invented in Germany, the first professional bandoneon players were also prolific writers of tango music and since the 1920’s, the melancholic and nasally quality of the instrument has been synonymous with tango.

Piazzolla, also known as the father of nuevo tango, a style of music combining tango, jazz and classical chamber music, cast ‘Aconcagua’ in the form of a Baroque concerto grosso. With a concertino grouping of bandoneon, piano, harp and percussion set against the main orchestra, bandoneon player Carel Kraayenhof played his instrument with such love and joy that he was a pleasure not only to hear but also to watch. He brought out beautifully the sensuous bandoneon melody of the slow second movement and flew effortlessly through the faster passages. The instrument positively sang with its sad sweet voice and the conductor frequently looked on with great admiration as this master spun out Piazzolla’s touching and memorable melodies.

The concert concluded with the orchestral suite of Silvestre Revueltas, a thrilling piece which brought the evening to an equally thrilling close.

Known as Mexico’s ‘famous unknown composer’, Revueltas’s suite was developed in 1960 by his fellow Mexican Jose Ives Limantour from the composer’s soundtrack for ‘La Noche de los Mayas’. Although the film itself was a flop, the score has remained one of Revueltas’s best known compositions, and Thursday evening’s performance captured beautifully the moody vitality and passionate nature of the piece. The highlight of ‘La noche de los Mayas’ and the absolute highlight of the evening’s performance was the extended section for solo percussion in the final movement. Energetic percussion playing and energetic conducting - Mr. Järvi almost fell off the podium at one stage - created some of the most exciting music making I have seen in the Sydney Opera House. The audience too were obviously impressed and burst into excited applause at the end of the percussion section, not to mention at the end of the evening!

‘Latin American Nights’ is definitely worth a look. This is not only an aurally pleasing evening of splendid music making from fine musicians; it is also a visually engaging performance and definitely worth a look to see this most engaging of conductors.  

Sydney Symphony presents
Latin American Nights

Venue: Sydney Opera House | Concert Hall
Dates: May 15,17
Time: 8pm

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