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music review

Conductor Rafaeal Frübeck de Burgos leads the TSO in La Vida BreveSean Howard

Something very unusual happened at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night. And it will probably happen again on Saturday night, so you might want to be there. Through all the conventions of the modern symphony-going experience – the frantic drive through downtown traffic, the last-minute rush to the washrooms, the musicians filing on stage dressed for a funeral, the rustling, coughing cacophony – through all this, art broke through. The real thing. Like a brilliant burst of the sun – warm, bright, exhilarating. Doesn't happen all the time.

The cause of most of this art was the man leading the TSO, guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. De Burgos will be 80 next year, and each time he shuffled from the wings to the RTH podium he looked it. But, at the podium, even seated as he was, 50 years disappeared before our eyes. He became a conductor of clarity, energy, style and grace – a magical transformation.

Frühbeck de Burgos's main task of the evening was to present a rarely heard operatic gem, staged for the concert hall, Manuel de Falla's La vida breve. De Falla was a Spanish composer at the turn of the 20th century who took all the familiar tropes of Spanish music – the flamenco rhythms, Andalusian folk song, and rhythmic propulsion – and added to them the impressionistic sound world of Debussy and Ravel, his friends and colleagues. The result is a very appealing blend of the natural and the sophisticated, folk elements and symphonic sheen.

La vida breve is a simple story of a lower-class woman lied to and abandoned by her upper-class lover, an abandonment that ends with her death at his wedding. It is a powerful story, but often the power of operas presented "in concert" is threatened by their staging, which is rudimentary at best. It's hard to get into a tale of betrayal and revenge when the principal actors are all seated neatly in a row, men in customary tails. But this Vida breve burst through all limitations by the sheer expressive power of its singers, musicians, and one remarkable flamenco dancer.

Chief among them was mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera, as the doomed heroine, Salud. Although Herrera had a bit of trouble fighting the 80-odd musicians behind her as the opera began, she soon hit her stride and provided a most expressive, heart-rending, intense performance as the woman who dies for love. By the opera's end, not a single person in the hall cared that this was not a full operatically staged performance. Herrera's art created in our imaginations every bit of staging that was necessary.

The real flamenco dancing of Nuria Pomares galvanized the performance both times she appeared, and launched it onto a new level of power and passion. Cristina Faus, as Salud's grandmother, provided a good foil for the heroine, and Vicente Ombuena, although with a much lighter voice, played her lover, Paco, to good effect. Gustavo Pena sang the role of a chorus with great style, and Pedro Sanz provided a beautiful Andalusian folk song in the wedding scene, a nice de Falla touch.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, although sometimes sounding like they were performing Handel, eventually got into their roles as Spanish workers and peasants, and provided exactly the kind of robust background de Falla called for.

But the real revelation was the sound that Frühbeck de Burgos got out of the Toronto Symphony, which played with a style, verve and commitment that is not always true of them. The power of de Falla's intense score seemed to resonate with the orchestra, and, as happens occasionally, eventually you failed to notice that they were playing a score at all – the music and the musicians merged as one. That the same thing happened in the first piece on the program, Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, was doubly remarkable.

Classical music-making in this city has reached a very professional level these days. Fine performances are the rule, not the exception. But this Toronto Symphony concert was an exception – rare repertoire performed with a rare aesthetic power.

Special to The Globe and Mail