Honoring the Spanish origin of the original commission of this work, Concierto Ibérico features a programmatic framework in which each of the concerto’s three movements is loosely modeled after a major festival of Spain: the Running of the Bulls during the annual nine-day festival of San Fermín in Pamplona; the Semana Santa (Holy Week) as it is celebrated in many Spanish cities such as Sevilla and Málaga; and the Fallas of Valencia. As the composer could not draw on personal experience and would otherwise be missing crucial aspects of these celebrations, he decided to forgo mere musical description of these festivals: instead, the underlying ideas–the philosophy, human ideals, and cultural concepts, all of which have shaped Iberian culture to this very day–were something to which the composer could relate deeply, and would also be compelling to an international audience.
Therefore, while festival scenes and elements are ubiquitous throughout the concerto, the three main aspects around which the movements are forged–and which permeate Iberian history and culture to this very day–are: Courage, Faith and Fire.
Concurrently, the musical language and thematic idioms used throughout this work are deliberately not stereotypically “Spanish”: rather, the music attempts to take a middle ground and transcend any unique Iberian cultural aspects; not until the very end of the concerto does it become recognizably that of Spain while drawing on the musical tradition established by composers like Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz, Joaquín Rodrigo, and Enrique Granados.
1st Movement: Courage (Valor)
Loosely based on the Pamplona encierro during the festival of San Fermín, the movement opens with a fanfare-like motif reminding all those who are about to face an insurmountable challenge – in this case the bulls – to gather their strength and courage for what is to come. During the introduction sequence, the mood alters between confidence, nervousness, fear, and peaceful resignation to one’s fate. When the running begins (represented by a driving rhythmic accompaniment in the orchestra), nerves flare and fear returns, only to be interrupted occasionally by brief episodes of rest and reflection; but ultimately any doubt vanishes, courage returns and confidence prevails. Finally, this very tightly constructed movement which presents a true tour-de-force for both the soloist and the orchestra, draws to an exhausted, yet, glorious close.
2nd Movement: Faith (Fe)
Religious and spiritual faith is the common bond holds many cultures together, and the people of Spain are no exception: throughout its history, faith presents the one driving force that permeates every aspect of society and cultural endeavor. But unlike other societies, the people of the Iberian Peninsula not only practice faith in reverent and quiet devotion: they also cheerfully celebrate their beliefs in joyous festivals – something that becomes easily apparent in this piece.
The movement opens with a slow and introspective theme in the English horn that leads into a prayer-like section in which the solo euphonium appears to freely and meditatively improvise over a sparse orchestral accompaniment, while distant church bells call the faithful to worship. But soon, trumpets herald the near arrival of a celebratory crowd, preceded by a beautiful chorale in the brass choir. When the festivities begin, the audience will hear various motifs from this and the previous movement blend into a glorious climactic sequence. The return to the earlier prayer motif brings this movement to a peaceful and meditative conclusion.
3rd Movement: Fire (Fuego)
Fire is primal, elemental, passionate, fascinating, and barely controllable. Since the beginning of recorded history, it has been at the center of events that shaped the fate of humankind – both for good and for evil. But fire also has an unrivalled cleansing power: the old, the outdated, the sins of the past can all be erased through the flames of a purifying fire; and probably no other festival in the world embodies all these aspects of fire like the Fallas of Valencia.
Like the fallers during the Despertà which starts every morning of the week-long celebration, several orchestral hits awaken the audience and ring in the festivities of the day with an explosive display of firecracker and fireworks barrages. The sheer overwhelming sensory impact of the celebratory crowd and the masterfully conceived, fanciful large and small ninots (Valencian for ‘puppets’ or ‘dolls’) to an observer walking through the festive plazas and streets become mere glimpses and fleeting impressions, represented by short fanfares and brief reprises of previous thematic material. Outbursts of a rapid motif reminiscent of a frenzied ritualistic pagan dance around a burning fire gradually build to the climactic collapse of the flaming pyres that consume all but a few of the fallas at the end of the festival. Out of the sparks and smoldering embers emerges a peaceful quotation of an Andalusian folk song. The concerto ends in a characteristically “Spanish” fashion by using musical idioms typically associated with music from this region, bringing this work to a rousing conclusion.