Another Culture of Benidorm, Alfas Del Pi, Alicante and the Costa Blanca
Some years ago I wrote a piece entitled A Culture of Benidorm. I wanted the article to register the fact that the Costa Blanca´s principal mass tourism resort could offer much more than mass tourism, a resort, a one euro pint of beer and a reheated British Sunday lunch with Y pud and real Bisto gravy. At the time, plans were afoot to build a new cultural centre in the town and a while later work did indeed start. Economic hardship coupled with political hiatus conspired to stall the project for over a decade, but now work has restarted and we nearby residents can look forward to another cultural venue within ten minutes of our collective front doors.
But in this article, I merely want to describe a cultural experience of four days from 13 February to 17 February 2020. Benidorm is nearby, but these four days were spent in Alfas del Pi and Alicante and were devoted to four concerts, three in Alfas del Pi and one in Alicante. My motive is entirely personal. I am not trying to promote the areas and I have no financial interest in either the location or the events. I do, however, I admit to being President of La Sociedad de Conciertos de Musica Clasica de Alfas del Pi, who hosted three of these four concerts and I gladly acknowledge the fact that our non-profit concert society would not exist without financial support from the Ajuntament de Alfas del Pi. But I restate that my intentions remain personal. For 45 years I have kept a commonplace book and I regularly write reviews of books, concerts, exhibitions, travel and much else in its pages. It is not and never has been a diary, though it is definitely an aide memoir. In this case, such was the quality of the music played that I have decided to publish this commonplace book entry to publicize the supreme achievements of these performers. It will also illustrate what is available to residents of this area, even before the new cultural centre in Benidorm comes on stream.
The Alfas del Pi music Society operates for eight months of each year and is now in its twelfth season. We have presented almost 300 concerts and have settled into a pattern of doing three concerts a month in different locations, basically over an extended weekend. On Thursdays we are hosted by Forum Mare Nostrum, a residential complex in the town. On Saturdays we occupy the town´s Casa Cultura and then on Sunday lunchtime we present a concert in the Centro Social in the beach resort of Albir. For those who do not know this area, I will offer the context that Alas del Pi is a town of 20,000 people of whom 50% are foreigners. Alfas includes a beach area called Albir, which serves mainly a residential rather than tourist population. Alfas is between the more famous Altea and the beach destination for millions of tourists each year, Benidorm. From the tourist areas of Benidorm, Alfas and Albir are just 10 minutes by car and there is a regular bus service between the towns, which are some 40 km or so north of Alicante, a city to which we are connected by a motorway, whose tolls were generously removed at the start of this year, making the journey into town just half an hour.
This musical journey began on Thursday 13 February 2020, with our society´s concert in Forum Mare Nostrum. The duo performing were Joaquin Palomares, violin, and Elena Segura, piano. Both teach at the music conservatory in Murcia and Joaquin has been vice president and artistic director of our society since it began.
The duo programmed three challenging and very different violin sonatas, beginning with, for our audience, the unfamiliar sonata by Leos Janacek. Personally, I have been hooked on the Czech composer´s music for over 50 years and would claim to know not every, but certainly most notes of this work. Like all Janacek, this is music of introversion, of doubt and conscience. But it is also passionate, thoroughly modern and full of energy. This is music of 1920´s cubism, where something utterly familiar, a folk tune, a minuscule repeated phrase, is seen from multiple, simultaneous perspectives. The music, like the art, recognizes how little we humans actually know about anything, perhaps most of all about ourselves, and the work ends almost apologetically, appearing to be sorry for having occupied our time.
Joaquin and Elena followed with the single movement sonata by Granados. Its visual equivalent is surely the symbolist painters of the turn of the 20th century. But in the case of Granados, the overtly Spanish feel in the harmonies, coupled with its vivid colours surely suggests the painting of Sorolla, a Valencian artist, who is a superstar in Spain but little-known elsewhere, apart from New York where he painted an immense commission for the Hispanic Society of America. The music is almost an homage to Debussy and reminds us that Granados was perhaps the most international of the Spanish composers of that era, and his sophistication is ever present in his music.
Joaquin Palomares and Elena Segura ended their recital with the monumental sonata of Cesar Franck. This is surely the impressionism of Manet in sound, a vast canvas reminiscent of Le Dejeuner sur l´herbe, where apparently straight-laced besuited gentlemen recline alongside a naked woman who seems to be less than interested in the proceedings. The sonata´s passionate lines are similarly kept in check by the formalism, the imposed decorum of the work´s construction. The music is always trying to burst into full-blown emotion, but some controlling reserve always seems to button up its collar, smooth down its skirt, as if it has been discovered in flagrante delicto. Joaquin and Elena offered Massenet´s Meditation of Thais and a little sentimental Portuguese song as encores before the audience adjourned to their wine-lubricated conversation with the performers.
Friday 14 February, besides being Valentine´s Day, was also a date for a concert in Alicante´s recently-built ADDA concert hall. It is a beautiful venue, seating an audience of over a thousand amid a perfect acoustic. And, for just over a year, we have had our own resident orchestra to present about two thirds of the concerts in the annual subscription series. The hall, by the way, and the orchestra, though new, is utterly adored by its public This is an orchestra that has become used to being applauded onto as well as off the stage. It is a great tribute to the work of artistic director, Josep Vicent - another Costa Blanca local - to have established and directed such a wonderful new orchestra in such a short time.
But this time he was not directing, and gave way to Alvaro Albiach, who was superb. They began with Ibert´s Homage to Mozart, a surrealistic joke of a piece. Marta Espinos then joined the ADDA orchestra to perform Sonata del Sur, the opus 52 of Alicante composer, Oscar Espla. It is a piece that mixes French idiom with its Spanish signature and also regularly dips into jazz. This was truly surprising music, wonderfully played and enthusiastically received. The concert concluded with Mozart´s Jupiter Symphony, number 41, in a performance full of energy and attack. Personally, I am no great fan of Mozart, but here the pedestrian formalism that often characterises performances of his music was thankfully lacking and the players´ enthusiasm was palpable.
And so we move on to Saturday 15 February and also back to Alfas del Pi´s Casa Cultura for a much anticipated visit by Trio Metamorphosi from Italy to play a concert in honour of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven´s birth. The three works they performed were the Variations, opus 44, the Trio, opus 1 number 3, and the Archduke. The Trio Metamorphosi comprises a violinist from Milan and brothers from Terni near Rome and they have been playing together for many years. Chosen by Decca to record the piano trios of Beethoven in honour of his 250th anniversary, they have devoted the last four years to preparing, playing, performing and recording this music. The degree of communication they achieved and the perfection of ensemble they exhibited kept the audience in a rapt silence that allowed every note to make its point, every phrase to tell its story. It was perfect to the extent that we all felt completely part of the music making. This was not merely performers and audience. This was truly a shared experience by everyone in the hall. And the sense of sharing was only enhanced when the musicians joined their audience for refreshments at the interval and to sign copies of their cds at the end, recordings they offered at truly bargain prices. It´s a concert that will live long in the memory, not least for the choice of encore because, after an hour and a half of Beethoven, the group chose a movement from the Piano Trio of Leonard Bernstein, stylistically quite different, but still profound in its rather stand-offish, twentieth century way.
Sunday 16 February was the last concert of our extended weekend. At midday the weather was particularly unlike the Costa Blanca norm. After several days of sunshine and elevated temperatures, a sudden cool air stream drenched our coast in a fog. A fretting sea kept out the sun and temperatures were once again wintry, where they really ought to have been all along.
But the weather did not affect our pair of Spanish pianists, Antonio Soria and Claudia Sevilla, who were to present a programme of four hands piano with a Spanish flavour. They began with a Sonata by Joaquin Tadeo de Murghia. My own collection of recordings now numbers almost 30,000 and I don’t tend to repeat myself by holding multiple copies of a piece. But Joaquin Tadeo does not figure amongst the four thousand plus composers in the list, so this was new territory for all concerned, except the performers. If ever one needed a reminder as to why live performance can never be replaced by a diet comprising only recordings then this was it. The music is broadly classical, a cross between Mozart and early Beethoven, on the piano similar to Fernando Sor on the guitar. They followed with a veritable gem in La Procession du Rocio, opus 9, of Joaquin Turina. Anyone who has not yet discovered the music of Turina, certainly Spain’s greatest composer of the modern era, should take time to research this genius. Antonio Soria certainly knows something about Turina’s music because back in the 1990s he recorded on 16 cds the composer’s entire piano music. This brilliant, vivid piece truly lit up a still dull day.
They followed with a Zapateado of Anton Garcia Abril. Almost minimalist in style, its driving rhythms drilled home its presence with considerable force. This was again music to cut through the day’s greyness with a vivid swathe of colour. Next came Montsalvatge’s Three Divertimenti on Themes by Forgotten Authors. This surprising and inspired music was perhaps the high point of the four days. Laden with humour, verging on the intellectual kitsch, Montsalvatge plays with the audience’s expectation, memories and predilections. These pieces are full of familiar melodies, but they are somehow presented as if via a distorting mirror, recoloured, like threatening jokes. The final piece, presented as a waltz-jota was bitonal, with the two pianists apparently together and yet musically completely apart. Antonio Soria later likened Montsalvatge’s music to the paintings of Picasso. I could see his point, but for me they are closer to the oeuvre of Miro, because of their brilliance of colour and the simplified familiarity of much of the shapes.
A final work was the Rhapsodie Español of Ravel. Of all the works listed thus far, this is perhaps the most difficult, the hardest to penetrate. Some years ago, I attended a concert of Ravel’s piano music, an hour and a half of the composer’s music. For about a week afterwards, I felt I might be in a different universe, transported and then abandoned by this composer’s unique style and vision. Ravel always goes to strange places, despite some of his works having become almost pop icons. The Rhapsodie Español was no exception, with its gentler moments truly surreal alongside the bravura and abandon of the feria. An encore of a Romance by Rachmaninov brought four concerts in four days to a close.
Incidentally, by the time we do this again next month, I will already have been to a further six concerts, equally varied and all of the same wonderful standard. I will also have been to Valencia for a performance of Rossini´s Il Viaggio a Reims, quite a change from the Elektra of Richard Strauss, which we heard last month. And, you may notice, I have not previously mentioned Valencia, which is just over an hour away and an easy return trip for an evening at the opera. I may even have had a pint or two in a Benidorm Brit bar, but a Sunday lunch with Y pud and real Bisto gravy out of the freezer I may just forego, but it is still there if I want it. Oh yes, there´s ballet from London´s Covent Garden live in our local cinema as well.
Years ago, as a recently arrived resident, I wrote A Culture of Benidorm to underline the fact that this cosmopolitan area is truly sophisticated in ways that casual observers of mass tourism may be completely unaware. It is possible on a visit to the northern Costa Blanca to hear a concert, stage work, opera, film or even a pop gig every night of the week, without travelling more than forty kilometres to a venue. Near Benidorm, you could do the same within ten kilometres, but you would have to forego the truly international events at Valencia´s opera or Palau de la Musica and the ADDA orchestra of Alicante. At least that is currently true, but when the new Cultural Centre in Benidorm opens, who knows what we might have on our doorstep?
Philip Spires is author of A Search for Donald Cottee is a comic tragedy about individualism. http://www.philipspires.co.uk/search_for_donald_cottee.htm
Donald, nicknamed Donkey, is an internet Don Quixote. Donkey Cottee and his wife, Poncho Suzie, have retired to Benidorm from their north of England mining village. Don has left behind his incessant self-education and Suzie has turned the corner of her illness. Their new life an eternal holiday on a campsite. To share the experience they blog. But they can never escape their Yorkshire origins, Don’s environmental campaigns and Suzie’s quest for business success as a nightclub boss take over their lives.
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