In the classical music field, “multimedia” has become a tired buzzword for something purportedly unconventional, usually involving video projections. But the PostClassical Ensemble really did offer multimedia in its long, packed, content-rich concert as part of the Kennedy Center’s “Iberian Suite” festival Tuesday night.
It’s not just that the artists offered projections of images and videos, along with the relevant texts, on the back wall as an attractive accompaniment to the performances. It’s that they offered so many different kinds of performance, at a consistently high level.
The program was called “Iberian Mystics: The Confluence of Faiths,” and it set out to explore the effects of Christian, Jewish and Muslim influences on Spanish music and culture — a program ambitious enough to constitute a whole festival in itself. But concerns that this was going to be too much like a college lecture — given the slides and the presence of a narrator (Clark Young) — were mostly allayed by the performances, starting with members of Cathedra, the Washington National Cathedral’s resident professional chorus, singing motets by Tomás Luis de Victoria.
In the course of the evening, the audience also got a trio playing folk Sephardic songs on period instruments, an Arabic music ensemble with a tabla player who almost stole the show, emotive readings of texts by everyone from Teresa of Avila to Rumi, Cervantes to Lorca, and even a flamenco dancer. It was an impressive array, and, as far as presenting a wide cross-section of work in meaningful short excerpts, it pretty much blew the festival’s opening-night presentation last week out of the water. (Okay, it’s not a competition.)
All of the color and variety slightly overshadowed the performances by the PostClassical Ensemble itself, although the group sounded in fine form under its engaging music director, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, and offered satisfying chunks of straight-up classical music to show, more or less, how composers have tried to assimilate all this local color.
The second, slow movement of Manuel de Falla’s Keyboard Concerto, with Pedro Carboné as soloist, didn’t quite live up to its billing as, in Ravel’s words, “the greatest chamber music of the 20th century,” with its strummed, emphatic statements from keys and strings.
The Trio Sefardi (Susan Gaeta on vocals, Tina Chancey on strings and Howard Bass on lute) gave such lovely and luminous performances of folk songs that the ensuing orchestrations of “Six Sephardic Songs” by the 20th-century composer Joaquin Nin-Culmell were slightly anticlimactic. The soprano Mariana Mihai-Zoeter had a hard-edged, slightly strident voice that didn’t engage as much as Gaeta’s compelling, soft-grained one (although her gown was as beautiful as those in the festival fashion display in the Kennedy Center lobby).
And the first flamenco dance, executed by Sonía Olla with foot-stamping abandon backed up by the guitar and vocals of a trio of flamenco musicians, was so intense and earthy and real that adding dance to the Falla excerpts that followed seemed like gilding the lily, or watering down the experience, fine though the orchestra’s playing was.
Indeed, one of the evening’s inadvertent messages was that folk and spiritual influences are so powerful on their own that mixing them into classical composition can groom some of the spark right out of them. That’s not exactly news.
All the more credit, though, to the PostClassical Ensemble for presenting the original influences in such a way that the power still came through, and the audience could experience some of the process for themselves.
If you wanted one evening that summed up some of the scope and ambition of this festival, this was probably it.
The “Iberian Suite” festival at the Kennedy Center runs through March 24.