Juanjo Mena makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker

28 May 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Juanjo Mena

Marie-Pierre Langlamet, Raquel Lojendio

  • Claude Debussy
    Images pour orchestre: Ibéria (22 min.)

  • Alberto Ginastera
    Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, op. 25 (26 min.)

    Marie-Pierre Langlamet Harp

  • Sergei Prokofiev
    Prélude (3 min.)

    Marie-Pierre Langlamet Harp

  • Manuel de Falla
    El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat), ballet music (44 min.)

    Raquel Lojendio Soprano

  • free

    Marie-Pierre Langlamet on the art of playing the harp (15 min.)

  • free

    Juanjo Mena in conversation with Joaquín Riquelme García (13 min.)

This concert programme centres around Spanish and Latin American folklore – without being folkloristic. Instead, the three works performed show how a country’s traditional music can serve as a source of inspiration and can be integrated into an individual composer’s personal style in the most fortunate of ways. In the early 20th century the music of Spain exerted a great fascination on France’s composers, including Claude Debussy. In the second part of his three-part orchestral work Iberia he describes an imagined Spain, conjuring up associations with balmy Mediterranean summer nights and exuberant fairs.

The Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, on the other hand, trained in composition with France’s musical avant-garde, and this played a significant role in developing his own musical language. This is proven by his ballet El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat), in which the composer makes use of typical Spanish dance forms like the fandango and the seguidilla, while at the same time, however, orienting himself stylistically towards French models in his orchestral colours. The brilliant and rousing piece helped de Falla achieve his international breakthrough.

The music of the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera is also characterized by a successful combination of rhythms and melodies of Latin America and avant-garde compositional techniques. During his studies in the USA, the composer was commissioned to write a harp concerto by Edna Philips, the harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. At this concert it is interpreted by Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harpist with the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Spaniard Juanjo Mena conducts, giving his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He was a student of Sergiu Celibidache and currently heads up the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester. Raquel Lojendio, who sings the soprano part in El sombrero de tres picos, also appears in Philharmoniker concerts for the first time.

Quasi Guitara

Music by Claude Debussy, Alberto Ginastera and Manuel de Falla

French Spanish music: Debussy’s Ibéria

Debussy visited Spain only once, to watch a bullfight in San Sebastián. He had no other direct impressions of his favourite country, nor is it likely that he systematically studied its folk traditions. Yet the idea of creating travel images in music occupied his thoughts throughout his life, and impressions of Spanish scenes crop up conspicuously often in his notes – though admittedly with no pretensions to “impressionism”, not to mention “authenticity”.

In Ibéria – the central panel of his musical triptych Images pour orchestre – the material’s inspiration is clear from the first bar: the resounding G major chords are accentuated by castanets affecting a bolero rhythm. The melodic treatment also evokes Moorish-Andalusian images, while the “Highways and Byways” mentioned in the movement title are manifested as intricate part-writing, through which tangle there dances an “élégant et rhythmé” clarinet theme. Contrasting with this driving first movement is the insubstantially floating F sharp major of “Les Parfums de la nuit”, in which Debussy abandons himself to what the composer Jean Barraqué referred to as “the charm of unstable tempi”. The elaborate division of the strings precludes metric constraint, making the following final march all the more rhythmically compelling. This “Holiday Morning” is heralded by bells that Debussy incorporates structurally into his orchestra, transcending mere Spanish illustration. All in all, this is instrumental artistry of supreme homogeneity. The parts are combined so subtly that they seem like the strings of a giant piano. Debussy succeeded in creating a French music of Spain that his friend and admirer Manuel de Falla even held up as a model for Spanish musicians.

Debussy indicated “Quasi Guitara” for one passage in the score of Ibéria’s third movement: the violin and viola sections imitate the Spanish guitar by playing pizzicato arpeggios with their instruments placed in their laps. Like many French composers, Debussy was fond of the sound of strings being plucked rather than bowed or struck. It’s not hard to imagine why, after Debussy’s death in 1918, Falla commemorated his idol with the dedication of an Homenaje for guitar.

Only remotely lyrical: Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto

Musical characteristics of the Spanish cultural circle may also have moved Alberto Ginastera to write a concerto for harp and orchestra, yet his music defies easy categorization. The output of this composer, born in 1916 in Buenos Aires, is dizzyingly varied. To start with, one needs to see him as the American already recognized as such by one of his teachers, Aaron Copland. Ginastera eschewed an “Argentine” inflection although he was interested in the traditional music of his homeland, embracing it in his early works before coming under the influence of the European avant-garde in later years. During the Perón regime, Ginastera lost his academic positions. He spent many years abroad and in 1971 he left Argentina – still under military dictatorship – for good and settled in Geneva, where he died in 1983.

Among his non-conformist works is the Harp Concerto, which had to wait nearly ten years for its premiere. In 1956 Edna Phillips, long-serving harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, commissioned Ginastera to write a solo concerto for her instrument. Although he soon set to work on it, he was unable to produce a performable score by the appointed date. In 1965, after composer and commissioner had lost contact with one another, harpist Nicanor Zabaleta gave the work its first performance in Philadelphia.

In keeping with the Harp Concerto’s scoring for small ensemble but with expanded percussion, its solo part emphasizes hardness and percussiveness more than witty elegance or exhilarating verve. With all the abrupt shifts between tonality and atonality, between introspective melodies and hammering rhythms, one element stands out: the 4th and 3rd intervals of open guitar strings – though transposed down a semitone – which the soloist intones in the cadenza that opens the last movement. The central Moderato with its canonical structure owes a clear debt to Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, but Ginastera also finds his own voice here when he juxtaposes the sinister-sounding ensemble against the solo harp playing “lirico e lontano” as the instrument of Orpheus.

Seguidillas for the Ballets Russes: Manuel de Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos

Unlike Ginastera, who fell foul of his government, Manuel de Falla was courted by the Franco regime in his native Spain. But he too went into exile. In 1939 he settled in Ginastera’s homeland of Argentina, where he died in 1946. Aside from the general indifference he had developed to the dictatorship, Falla certainly had no appetite for the official duties that his return to Franco’s Spain would have entailed. Notwithstanding the prominence of Spanish local colour in his slender oeuvre, Falla can equally well be regarded as a “French” composer: in 1907, disillusioned by Spain’s musical provincialism, he left it for Paris where he encountered, among others, the novelty-seeking impresario Serge Diaghilev and his legendary Ballets Russes.

The genesis of El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) goes back to World War I and the Ballets Russes’ visit to Spain. Falla initially intended to make an opera from Pedro Antonio de Alarcón’s novella but was prevented from doing so by a stipulation in the will of the author, who died in 1891. Nothing, however, stood in the way of turning it into a pantomime, and in 1917 the composer’s friend Gregorio Martínez Sierra, a writer, publisher and theatre director, supplied him with a farsa mímica entitled El corregidor y la molinera (The Corregidor and the Miller’s Wife). When Diaghilev visited Madrid in 1917, he urged Falla to develop that work into the ballet with song being performed today, which was given its highly successful premiere by the Ballets Russes in London in 1919.

The introductory clapping and cries of “Olé!” are informally directed to the audience, for whom a simple, comical story is now danced. In the Andalusian city of Guadix, a corregidor (magistrate) – whose three-cornered hat identifies him as a high-ranking government official – is pursuing the beautiful wife of a miller. The dignitary, who attempts to woo the faithful wife with a classicistic and rather heavy-handed bassoon solo, falls into her trap: a feigned seduction (witnessed by her husband). The hapless philander ultimately gets his comeuppance when the Miller’s neighbours toss the Corregidor up and down in a blanket like a straw doll.

For this carnivalesque illustrated broadsheet, Falla created a series of passionate Andalusian dances, including the Miller’s Wife’s fandango, her husband’s farruca and the neighbours’ seguidillas. Some especially witty instrumental and vocal effects are displayed in the song of the blackbird, the call of the cuckoo, the Miller’s whistled warnings and the subtly introduced quotation from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – its opening motif absurdly deployed to underscore a “fateful” knocking at the door. As the Austrian writer on music Kurt Pahlen put it, the Corregidor “is first made half-blind and driven into a rage before being ‘finished off’ – that moment savoured in a cruel, triumphant ceremonial. The model for this sporting activity is only too clear: a Spanish bullfight.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

Juanjo Mena is one of the most internationally renowned Spanish conductors and has been chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester since September 2011. Born in 1965 in the Spanish Basque country, Mena studied in his home town of Vitoria-Gasteiz, then at the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música in Madrid and in Munich under Sergiu Celibidache. From 1999 to 2008, he was artistic director and chief conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Bilbao. This was followed by positions as principal guest conductor at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa (2007 – 2010) and principal guest conductor of the Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester (2007 – 2013). Juanjo Mena has also conducted many other orchestras in Europe, such as the Orchestre National de France, the Oslo Philharmonic, the Orchestra della Scala (Milan) and the Dresden Philharmonic. In the USA, he has also worked with the orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh since his debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2004. The operatic repertoire of Juanjo Mena includes such diverse works as the Flying Dutchman,Salome,Elektra,Bluebeard’s Castle, Eugene Onegin,Le nozze di Figaro and Billy Budd. With El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) by de Falla, he celebrated a great success at the BBC Proms in 2013. Juanjo Mena is now to be heard with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time.

Marie-Pierre Langlamet was born in Grenoble (France). She received her first musical training at the Nice Conservatoire with Elisabeth Fontan-Binoche, later participating in master classes given by Jacqueline Borot and Lily Laskine. At the age of only 15, she attracted international attention when she won top prize at the Maria Korchinska International Harp Competition and first prize at the International Harp Competition of the Cité des Arts of Paris one year later.She was only 17 when she was engaged as principal harp in the Nice Opera Orchestra, but a year later she gave up this position to continue her studies in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute. From 1988 she was deputy principal harpist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. In 1992 Langlamet won first prize at the International Harp Competition in Israel, a competition that is widely regarded as the most important for the instrument. She joined the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1993. Marie-Pierre Langlamet appears all over the world as a soloist with leading orchestras (e. g. Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande) and chamber ensembles, and she also gives numerous solo recitals. In January this year she was the soloist in Debussy’s Danse sacrée et Danse profane with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Christian Thielemann. Since 1995 she has taught at the Orchestra Academy. In June 2009, Marie-Pierre Langlamet was made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.

Raquel Lojendio comes from Santa Cruz de Tenerife and was trained at the Conservatorio Superior de Música del Liceo in Barcelona by Carmen Bustamente. She also attended master classes with María Orán and Krisztina Laki. The soprano enjoys success equally in opera houses, in the Spanish musical comedy genre of Zarzuela and on the concert stage. She has performed roles in works ranging from Handel, Haydn and Mozart to Verdi, Bizet and Montsalvatge with the most important Spanish orchestras, the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI in Turin, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dresden Philharmonic. The soprano has worked with conductors such as Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Juanjo Mena and Jesús López-Cobos. Sacred works from Bach to Bruckner and Haydn's Creation are part of her repertoire as are Les Noces by Stravinsky, Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, the Maria Triptych by Frank Martin, and works by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo. At the BBC Proms in 2013, she appeared in de Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos under the direction of Juanjo Mena. This is Raquel Lojendio’s first guest appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Watch now

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

In our free playlist, Kirill Petrenko conducts works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The best seat in the house is reserved just for you!

View our free playlist