‘The fragrance of magnolias’

North State Symphony brings to life the exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez

Soloist Matthew Greif rehearsing Joaqu’n Rodrigo’s classical-guitar masterpiece in Laxson.matt siracusa

Soloist Matthew Greif rehearsing Joaqu’n Rodrigo’s classical-guitar masterpiece in Laxson.matt siracusa

North State Symphony's Across the Seas, From Ages Past, Sunday, May 13, Laxson Auditorium.

Joaqu’n Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is one of those works, like Dvorák’s Symphony from the New World or Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, that are familiar to people who don’t even listen to classical music. It’s been recorded by so many artists, in so many versions and styles (perhaps most notably by Miles Davis on his great album Sketches of Spain), that it pops up on the radio and as film background music all the time. It’s inescapable.

Which is a good thing, for as the North State Symphony’s performance of it Sunday, May 13, reminded the audience in Laxson Auditorium, it’s quite simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, particularly its second movement, the Adagio. It’s also the most successful evocation and mixing of the folk and classical musical traditions of Spain. The first time I heard it, a couple of years after returning to California from a year-long sojourn in Madrid, I cried because it brought back my experience so vividly and movingly.

Rodrigo, who was blind from the age of 3, was living in Paris when he wrote the piece, in 1939. It was first performed when he returned to Spain, in 1940. He said it was inspired by the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, the spring resort a few miles south of Madrid, and that “it should sound like the hidden breeze that stirs the treetops in the parks” and should “depict the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds and the gushing of fountains,” all images a blind man would appreciate.

For its performance Sunday, the last of the 2011-12 season, the symphony brought in guitarist Matthew Greif, a member of the Grammy-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and a veteran solo performer.

Greif is a fine player, but I thought at times he played too softly—that, or he was miked too low. The Spanish guitar is a gentle instrument and in most concerto settings would be overwhelmed by the orchestra, but Rodrigo’s concerto is exquisitely designed not to overpower the guitar and instead to intertwine melodies in a continuing musical conversation between soloist and orchestra. From my seat in the balcony, however, there were a few moments when the sound of the guitar got lost.

Otherwise, though, it was a superb performance. I’ve listened to many different recordings of the Concierto de Aranjuez by major orchestras, and the North State Symphony’s version was as good as any of them. The Adagio, in particular, had a haunting beauty that began as melancholy and built to a passionate climax, and it was utterly thrilling. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person with tears in his eyes.

The other two works on Sunday’s program, Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman Overture and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, are both grand pieces full of emotional highs and lows, changing tempos and intense harmonies. If a listener’s tendency with the Rodrigo piece was to close his eyes and let the music wash over him, with these pieces it was to watch conductor Kyle Wylie Pickett lead his musicians through these dramatic works.

Wagner’s overture, which began the program, is both an introduction to and summary of his The Flying Dutchman opera of 1841, the first major work in which he developed the grand style that was to mark his career henceforth. As such, it was a wonderful warm-up for the NSS, who got to shake it loose with a piece that was as big in sound as it was short in length before entering the subtle, nuanced world of the Rodrigo concerto.

The lovely Schumann symphony is similarly grand, a big, fat romantic work remarkable not only for the drama and emotions it embodies, but also for its refusal to interrupt the music between its four movements. This gives it a seamless flow that follows themes introduced in the beginning throughout the work. Again, the NSS gave it a spirited performance that was as powerful as it was precise.