BBC Philharmonic’s Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena talks about his new disc of music by Alberto Ginastera during the composer's centenary year
2016 sees the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alberto Ginastera, the Argentine composer and political exile, much of whose music 33 years after his death is rarely heard in European concerts. The colourful Dances from Estancia are regularly performed and the Harp Concerto is a favourite with soloists, but beyond that the majority of his music remains unfamiliar to audiences. For this reason, I simply had to celebrate Alberto Ginastera’s music on disc and in concerts this year.
As my Berlin Philharmonic debut is coming up in May, I couldn’t resist programming Ginastera’s Harp Concerto with the orchestra’s harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet, who also performs it with me and my orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, in April in Manchester and, before that, in Hanley, where we play both as a world-class broadcast orchestra, heard by millions on BBC Radio 3, and also as part of our remit serving audiences across the North of England. In Berlin, the Harp Concerto will be paired with Simon Rattle’s suggestion of Debussy’s Iberia and Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat with Raquel Lojendio (also featured on my 2012 recording). Falla’s ballet was the first recording I made for Chandos with the BBC Philharmonic and now, for our seventh and eighth discs together, we have turned our attention to Ginastera in time for the anniversary year.
More often than not, audiences know Spanish music through non-Hispanic composers such as Ravel and Debussy, because of their wonderful orchestrations of the Spanish musical language. Meanwhile, our own home-grown composers - mostly post-Romantic - remain overlooked, with the exception perhaps of the great Manuel de Falla.
For this reason, I wanted listeners to sample the original. Previously for Naxos, under the banner of Spanish Classics, I had recorded in my hometown with the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra. Together, we explored the music of the Basque country through composers such as Isasi, Guridi, Arámbarri and Escudero. Subsequently when I started as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, I continued to build the library on Chandos with music by de Falla, Turina and Montsalvatge and also some other discs of Pierné and Weber.
For me, this CD series has been a really exhilarating experience because it has been an opportunity to record Latin repertoire in the best possible conditions - something not necessarily afforded to these composers in their lifetimes. As the BBC Philharmonic is a radio orchestra (on air at least once or twice a week on BBC Radio 3), we have been able to use our own recording engineer Stephen Rinker for these CDs as well. This makes such a difference because he knows exactly the sound I am aiming for – he respects the sound that is actually produced in the studio and that’s what you hear on the disc, without any unnecessary re-balancing. When we were recording the disc of Turina’s music, it suddenly occurred to me that Turina would never have heard his music performed to such a high quality and recorded in this way. Just the thought brought tears to my eyes.
For our new disc, we decided with our Producer Mike George to make a complete recording of Ginastera’s landmark ballet Estancia about gaucho life on the pampas of Argentina – rather than the familiar shortened suite – alongside his Ollantay which looks back to Incan mythology, and Pampeana No 3. Ginastera is the Argentine equivalent of Copland, himself a supporter of Ginastera’s music while he was in exile from Argentina. While Copland painted the open prairies, Ginastera focused on the pampas.
It has been fascinating trying to express to a British orchestra the Spanish or Latin sound I am looking for. When we were preparing Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat I wanted my BBC Philharmonic colleagues to understand the concept of Cante Jondo, the flamenco term for singing from the soul with a sound that comes from the centre of your body. So often orchestras around the world imagine that Spanish music is light and entertaining - like Fred Astaire dancing – but on the contrary, our musical tradition is rooted in the bare earth. The only way I could explain how I wanted this music to sound was to demonstrate it on the podium in the way that flamenco dancers carry the power up through their bodies from the floor. When the Antonio Marquéz Dance Company started rehearsing with us for our performance of Falla’s ballet at the Proms, the orchestra got what I meant straight away. With the Ginastera recordings, I am also searching for this same fierce masculine power to depict the gaucho’s life.
I love this music. It’s not cerebral in the Germanic symphonic tradition, which has a more refined structure. With Latin music, the approach is raw emotion and I find myself getting up on the podium in rehearsals - dancing, singing, crying – whatever is needed to engage and inspire the musicians…. In America, it’s this moment which philanthropists are most eager to witness first hand. They want more than to sit in a concert hall far removed from the stage, however thrilling that might be. They support their orchestras because they want to be on the inside and that gives them the opportunity to sit side by side with players on the stage in the middle of a rehearsal. With the BBC Philharmonic, I watch the same reaction from audiences attending our live broadcasts when they sit in the studio in Salford and watching as the broadcast goes live on air to millions across the country.
Our next recordings will be the ballet Panambí – Ginastera’s first major success in Buenos Aires in the mid-1930s – and the three piano concertos, where I’ll be joined by soloist Xiayin Wang.
'Ginastera Orchestral Works Part 1' is out now on Chandos. Juanjo Mena appears with the New York Philharmonic on January 27, followed by 28,29 and 30, and the Berlin Philharmonic on May 26, 27 and 28. He is back in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic on February 13, and will conduct Ginastera’s Harp Concerto with the orchestra at Victoria Hall, Hanley, on April 15 and The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on April 16.