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01 Sep 2017

Unravelling the power of Flamenco


"Flamenco really connects to the elemental energy that we all share.

"It's distilled life force in a way. You feel it in the movement of the dancers and you feel it in the clapping of the hands and you feel it in the singing and you feel it in the richness and the resonance of the harmonies.

"All of that combined gives you a feeling that you are really, truly alive," says David Robertson, Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and – not coincidentally – an amateur guitarist (in his words) and ardent fan of Flamenco.

There is a tendency when talking about performing arts to separate the ideas of dance, singing and instrumental playing. We speak, for instance, of the music that accompanies concert dance as if it belongs to a quite different artistic category, and indeed it may well have been composed independently of the dance and co-opted by the choreographer.

In Flamenco the three elements are inseparable. "They are one and the same," says Robertson. "They are organically fused." The palmas, or rhythmic handclapping, is both instrument and movement, as is the percussive footwork known as zapateado. The sinuous, passionate lines of the cante, or song, take physical form in the moving body of the dancer and are mirrored in the curves of the guitar, which both drives and follows, depending on what the voice or the dance is doing. Inseparable.

Add an audience to the mix and you have lift-off. Some say Flamenco has a fourth quality that's inextricable from the whole – jaleo, which means uproar or hell-raising, and refers not only to the vocal encouragement performers give one another but the sense of community between performers and those watching. Jaleo also refers to the words or phrases called out during the performance.

No wonder Robertson confidently predicts "it's going to be a great party" when the SSO shares the stage with Flamenco royalty Juan Carmona, pictured below, and his septet. In the second half of the program the SSO joins Juan Carmona Septet to play Carmona's Sinfonia Flamenca (2004) for Flamenco ensemble and orchestra (with orchestrations by Rachid Reguagui). The first half will feature traditional Flamenco.

"My admiration for Carmona knows no bounds," says Robertson, who has known him for many years. "There is simply nothing on the guitar that he cannot play with incredible ease and virtuosity. He is without peer in my estimation. I know from gripping a guitar in panic myself it's incredibly difficult. He's a little like Usain Bolt. It's not really fair."

Flamenco emerged in the 18th century in the form we now know but the roots are long and tangled. There are Indian influences from the gypsies who travelled from there to Andalucia in the early 15th century, to which were added Jewish and North African traditions. You can still feel the traces of oppression and dispossession in the wild, intense outpourings of emotion so familiar in Flamenco.

This vital music ultimately became widely popular – how could it not? – although not always respectable. It couldn't be denied, however, and found its way into the concert hall, transformed but still familiar. SSO audiences, for instance, can hear pianist Benjamin Grosvenor in recital playing two pieces by 19th century Spanish composer Eduardo Granados from his suite Goyescas. In another program Steven Osborne will perform Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, for piano and orchestra, with Ludovic Morlot conducting the SSO. On the same bill is Debussy's famous Ibéria, a reflection on Spain by a Frenchman.

With Juan Carmona Septet, though, audiences will get the real, unmediated thing. Time to bone up on a few jaleos.

Season Packages to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 2018 season are now on sale. To hear the SSO perform Sinfonia Flamenca with Juan Carmona, subscribe to Kaleidoscope, Meet the Music, or add it to your Create Your Own pack.

Unravelling the power of FlamencoUnravelling the power of FlamencoUnravelling the power of Flamenco