Review: Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra with guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas

Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas performed with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra Feb. 14, 2014. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco |

Classical guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas performed with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra Feb. 14, 2014. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco |

Most guys have to plan Valentine’s night for two. This year, maestro Scott Terrell had to plan for the more than 1,000 folks who could have potentially shown up at the Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall for the Lexington Philharmonic‘s February Classics concert on Friday night.

And like a good date night planner, Terrell came up with several really good ideas, most of which worked for the crowd, which filled a healthy majority of the hall’s 1,467 seats.

The best, clearly, was engaging classical guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas for a return visit to Lexington. The last time he was here, in October 2007, was literally the start of a new era, or at least a bridge, in the Philharmonic’s history. It was the first concert of the orchestra’s music director search and featured conductor Kayoko Dan, who went on to lead the Central Kentucky Youth Orchetras for two years.

Like that night, he played Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, but we are now firmly in the Scott Terrell era, and the feeling was looser than that night almost seven years ago, to good effect.

Villegas himself is astounding in his fret and picking/strumming work, making it look so much easier than it is. Some moments of flat-out strumming made you move in your seat, but at the most dazzling moments he was pounding and releasing the strings with marvelous results, even back to Row V.

Part of the reason Concierto de Aranjuez is so popular for classical and Spanish guitar players to perform with orchestras is it offers everything you could want from the instrument in one piece. There’s the lyrical opening and then the bittersweet second movement, a remembrance of both the joy of his honeymoon with his wife Victoria and the pain of losing their first child to a miscarriage, to the third movement that sounds like the walk through a garden that inspired it.

Villegas took us on that journey, and Terrell and the orchestra were worthy companions with the most nuanced playing of the evening, only challenging the guitar on a couple brief occasions.

The evening opened with Valentino Dances from The Dream of Valentino by Dominick Argento, a fitting lead-in to the Rodrigo that was as cinematic as its title. It is a piece that was probably new to most of the audience and boasted some great drama and contrasts and a chance to hear accordion with orchestra, in a lovely — yes, the accordion can be quite lovely — performance by Jeff Lisenby. The Latin dance piece also featured work by pianist Mark Tollefsen and saxophonist Lisa Osland, adding luscious flavor to Valentino. There were a few problems of balance and an apparent false note or two that probably could have been ironed out with more work. But introducing us to intriguing works such as this has been a hallmark of the Terrell era, and they are rarely disappointing.

The second half of the concert was the most mixed bag with Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Op. 21 and 61. A lot of us are familiar with the overture and the Wedding March. And frankly, if there were any proposals in the audience Friday, I daresay the couples are probably wondering if they can swing hiring the Phil for their wedding now; you rarely hear the march played quite like that. But Terrell expanded those offerings with Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the whole Shakespeare play. That brought in added elements including women’s choirs from Asbury University and Lafayette High School, soloists Katy Lindhart and Kate Tombaugh and actor Matthew Lewis Johnson, who has just returned to his hometown of Lexington via extended stays and work in Cincinnati and Atlanta.

All that, and still, you would swear Terrell programmed this piece simply to show off new principal flute Pei-San Chiu and longtime flutist Merrilee Elliott. As a work about fairies, the flutes really carry the piece with their bookending phrases, a gorgeous solo and spritely dances throughout, with a lot of help from the brass and woodwinds.

It was a busy night overall for the winds, which was fitting as the concert was dedicated to the memory of former principal oboist Nancy Clauter, who died late last year after a long battle with multiple myeloma. Clauter is also being remembered Saturday night in a concert by the University of Kentucky Wind Symphony.

The problem was in the length and clarity of the work, which seemed to strain the patience of a number of audience members who departed early. It probably helped to have familiarity with the play to effectively follow the work.

Johnson was very entertaining reading the words of Puck and other characters, and it would be fantastic to see him on stage in an actual play sometime soon. He stood behind a lectern with a microphone, which did not seem to be used. That was fine, as his voice had no trouble reaching the back of the concert hall. But his part of the show, interwoven with the music, might have been more effective if he was freed from the stand and could engage the audience a bit more.

Still, while Midsummer may not have been entirely successful, Puck wishing the lovers good night to those flutes was a lovely way to end a Valentine’s concert.

At the end of intermission, Terrell made several announcements including that Philharmonic has just received its largest individual donation ever: $150,000 from the Tom Dupree Initiative for Philharmonic programming. Friday night, that seemed like a great investment.

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