A fine night of Spanish music under the stars

Classical Music Critic

Pablo Sáinz Villegas is a Spaniard who readily took to the guitar. He began lessons at age six and offered his first public performance only a year later. As an adult, he remains close to children: he has performed for thousands of kids as well as established music programs and community music activities for young people all over the world. He won the Segovia Award at age 15 and since then has accumulated more than two dozen other prizes. Last week he made his Grant Park Music Festival debut at the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.

The guitarist took on Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Fantasia para un Gentilhombre” and left the audience wanting more.

Rodrigo, blind from the age of three, wrote the “Fantasia”, as he wrote all his compositions, using a Braille music typewriter. The “Gentilhombre” of the title is Andrés Segovia, one of the most revered guitarists of the 20th century, and the person for whom Rodrigo composed the piece.

Pablo Sáinz Villegas showed off his skill and musicality with his performance. From the beginning, he and the Grant Park Orchestra led by Carlos Kalmar, had an easy communication as the music shifted back and forth from soloist to ensemble. The dialogue between the two was always clear and had beautiful flow.

The guitarist was articulate and crisp and produced a well-rounded sound. He was dexterous in the complex passages and had captivating dynamics, easily shifting from a hushed sound to a glorious fortissimo.

Kalmar coaxed lovely music from the orchestra, who gave the soloist their full support.

The performance was so well received that Pablo Sáinz Villegas offered an encore: “Gran Jota” by Francisco Tarrega. This was charming, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable.

The concert opened with the Overture to “Los Esclavos Felices” (“The Happy Slaves”) by Juan Crisóstomo Arriga, a 17th century composer sometimes referred to as the Spanish Mozart. Written when Arriga was only 13, the work is not deep but has many pleasing ideas. Kalmar drew out the joy of the piece, investing it with vigorous pacing and pleasing orchestral balance. It was good, fluffy fun.

Kalmar and the orchestra then gave a full-throated performance of the Suite from “Carmen” by Georges Bizet. Many suites based on opera often fail to fully excite the listener primarily because so much of the music is meant to be sung. But this suite gives the orchestra lots of sizzle and the entrancing music shines fully, though lacking a vocal component.

Even without words, the spectacular music, invested fully with color by the orchestra, had you imagining Carmen in seductive dances and the toreador engaged in masculine swagger. The heat of the Spanish sun was evident as was the moonlit romanticism.

Kalmar knew when to make the music brisk and punchy and when to emphasize the underlying pulses. The entire orchestra sounded splendid and there was particularly haunting work from the flute. Grandeur and tragedy combined to make for a satisfying performance.

The concert, which was performed without intermission, closed with the “Danzas Fantásticas” by Joaquin Turina. The evening’s final look at Spain was mostly interesting, even though this was the least intriguing music on the program.

Kalmar worked hard, however, to make the sounds interesting. The work’s three movements draw on the poetry of José Más and the orchestra was effective in achieving dancelike fluidity, all leading up to a big, exciting conclusion.

The Grant Park Music Festival is nearing its conclusion. The final concerts of the season take place on Fri., Aug. 18 at 6:30 and Sat., Aug. 19 at 7:30 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park with performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The soloists will be Janai Brugger, soprano, Allyson McHardy, mezzo, Brendan Tuohy, tenor, and Russell Braun, bass. For more information, visit grantparkmusicfestival.com.