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Topless Beaches and Tapas Bars- The Quincena Music Festival in San Sebastián

The Quincena Musical Festival in San Sebastián was torrid as advertised. So were the topless beaches to which my wife and I can testify. And there was a music critic who performed at a concert by a countertenor in a convent.

We arrived at the end of August for the festival’s last three days: three orchestral concerts at the city center’s gleaming new Audiotorio Kursaal, and two early music concerts in the church of Maria Teresa, where the convent nuns never leave the grounds and watched the concerts from a private balcony of their own. Each of the five sold-out concerts enhanced the enjoyment of summer, a stimulating entertainment interlude between day outings doing tourist things and nights wandering the tapas and pintxos bars.

The performing critic was a gray man hunched over a laptop at his own desk in the corner of the Church next to the stage. He appeared on Aug. 30 during the second early music concert, nominally featuring countertenor Jordi Domenech and harpsichordist Dani Espasa. He occasionally punched a few keys, but mostly he sighed, sometimes putting his right hand to his forehead and then to his pursed lips; he played a lot with his mouse. A few times he took out a folder of papers. I was told he was a tough critic for a prestigious, Basque-language San Sebastían newspaper. It takes a brave critic to attempt such publicly visible and in my experience unique participation. One wonders who was the matador and who the bull?

The concert itself was no contest. While Domenech held forth splendidly with emotional and physical pyrotechnics, Espasa gave one of those mini displays that sometimes exist under the radar of a recital, establishing the concert’s tone with a Purcell suite of unsurpassed inner beauty as if the individual strings of the harpsichord had been freed from the wooden box in which they were encased. When Domenech followed with a freely expressive passel of Purcell favorites including “I Attempt from Love’s Sickness” and “Bess of Bedlam,” the audience was so enraptured that it wouldn’t have noticed ten critics performing, even had the critics been on stage. After some lovely Alessandro Scarlatti, Handel ended the night triumphantly with Espasa playing the G Minor “Seventh Suite” to perfection and Domenech triumphing with two arias from “Orlando.”

The early music concerts were definitely places to be, especially the part where you have to sprint up dizzying flights of stairs because there’s an annual parade clogging the narrow streets. A few nights before, Baroque violinist Enrico Casazza and harpsichordist Davide Pozzi made sounds that were thrilling or heavenly as they needed to be. Casazza’s way with Francesco Maria Veracini laid a brilliant new light on a composer still waiting to be discovered. Corelli’s big set piece, “La Folía,” stole the show but it was arch, febrile Veracini who stole the night.

For its last appearance in San Sebastián this summer, Cologne’s WDR Orchestra, partnered by San Sebastián’s own renowned Orfeón Donostiarra chorus, took on some heavy thematic content and had a sell-out audience roaring on their feet at the martial close of Beethoven’s mighty “Ninth Symphony.”

The evening had begun with Schoenberg’s thorny diatribe against war, “Friede auf Erden,” then Brahms’s “Schicksalslied,” warm and comforting. After intermission came a Beethoven “Ninth” whose familiar dimensions conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the magnificent WDR band filled out with logistical precision and instrumental beauty that followed an irresistible, arcing line from the first bar to the last. The singers were a mighty lot and the hometown chorus received ovations and the kind of love that is reserved in Spain for heroes such as bullfighters, footballers and lovers. That the subtitles were in Spanish and Basque added a surreal note to the immense power of the occasion.

The program might have been designed to share the agony and pain which the wars of the last century still maintain in Spain into 2011. And the audience took it seriously. At a time of national crisis and emergency in Spain, this one concert alone demonstrated the Festival’s entire commitment to artistic courage and integrity as a way of inspiring hope and giving promise of a brighter future.

The first of the two Budapest Festival Orchestra concerts, led by an irrepressible Iván Fischer, was deliriously happy and rustic in two of Brahms’s “Hungarian Dances” and Dvorak’s rustic “Eighth Symphony.” Irrepressible, however, was not the word for the Danish virtuoso Nikolaj Znaider, playing Brahms’s “Violin Concerto,” who took off gloriously into a stratosphere of perfect sound, gloriously in tune, but then set his performance on cruise control. Together he and the Hungarians bravely held on until the end, each oblivious of the other. Perhaps a relationship will develop over time.

The second Budapest concert was of an entirely different nature. In a stunning performance of Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz,” conductor and orchestra revealed the dizzying heights and depths of the superstar composer’s musical soul. Written just a few years after Saint-Saens’s conventional “Danse Macabre,” it stood starkly and magnificently as a profound precursor of all the 20th century’s most powerful compositional impulses. Mahler’s sadly forgotten, impulsive little “Blumine” movement, a musical rosebud in the most perfect Wellesian sense, was followed by the stirring Mahler “First Symphony” from which it was eventually abandoned, in a reading of compelling grandeur. In between, Dejan Lazic played one of Liszt’s tinkly piano concertos with glamor, form and fluency.
The depth of interest and commitment from the audience during each concert was profound, whether they were tourists, residents of San Sebastián, or visitors from nearby towns along the Spanish and French coasts, and even Paris and Barcelona. It was the sign of a community, not just a festival, that cared.

Laurence Vittes, Eagle News