Maybe it's fatuous to think of Spanish repertoire as warm-weather music (Madrid temps can dip to 25 degrees this time of year), but the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia's sunny program of Joaquin Turina, Joaquin Rodrigo, and Bizet couldn't have been more welcome Monday, particularly as conducted by Andrew Grams. He knows how to polish music without airbrushing it into inconsequentiality.
On paper, the program promised charm over substance. Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez is full of inviting tunes and folksy atmosphere, while Bizet's Symphony No. 1 is full of engaging melodies but is still the work of the 17-year-old future composer of Carmen. The most substantial piece was the least known, Turina's La Oracion de Torero (The Bullfighter's Prayer), originally written for lutes but transcribed for string quartet before growing into a string orchestra piece.
Though only eight minutes long, Oracion has the wide-ranging feel of an operatic scene. The music's ruminations resist the innate bravura of its protagonist, maintaining a personal, engaging narrative even for those inclined to pray for the bull.
The Bizet symphony is probably too lightweight to carry the second half of an orchestral program, but if you judge a piece by its slow movement, this one has some of the composer's best-ever music, dominated by a wistful melody that seems to be drawn from a specific ethnicity (though you're not sure which one), punctuated by a fugue that's both academically correct yet perfectly in keeping with the composer's personality. Guest conductor Grams, who started his career as assistant conductor of the Reading Symphony Orchestra but is beginning to have an international profile, had plenty of authority, inspiring some excellent playing and lots of style.
The irresistible Rodrigo concerto, whose Spanish vernacular influences winningly trump the charm-over-substance question, depends on its soloist for success. And guitarist Gyan Riley was an accomplished musician: Though his first-movement tempo threatened to drag, it never actually did, allowing him to clearly establish his guitar personality with forthright, vivid timbres, quite appropriate to the music.
Usually a concerto cadenza is an occasion to stand back and marvel. But Riley's drew you further into the music's world; since he (like his father, the great Terry Riley) is also a composer, he perhaps has a healthy regard for Rodrigo as a colleague rather than an object of veneration. Yet he's an unpolished presence, looking like he slept in his clothes. He also became garrulous while introducing his encore. Could he use a final finish from Philadelphia's Astral Artists program? Yes.