Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
September 6, 2018

“Believe me, this is not a programme that I could bring to any of the big five orchestras in the United States,” Sydney Symphony Orchestra Chief David Robertson told Jo Litson, referring to Sinfonia Flamenca, a program featuring French flamenco guitarist Juan Carmona and his septet. “This is the thing that is so exciting about having an orchestra that has this multi-disciplinary approach.”

The SSO often reaches outside the ‘traditional’ classical music world in its collaborations, performing with Taikoz earlier this year and in 2019 with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Like those programs, Sinfonia Flamenca offers more than simply a tokenistic cross-over concert, presenting a deeper exploration of the ways these different musical styles can intersect.

Sinfonia Flamenca, Sydney Symphony OrchestraKaren Lugo, the Juan Carmona Septet, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Daniela Testa

The first half of the program was a crash-course in flamenco from a master of the genre, in a suite of original works, an introduction to the sound world and improvisatory styles of flamenco.

The set opened with Carmona on stage alone – dispatching articulate, deeply-rendered flourishes on guitar –  before he was joined by Kike Terrón on percussion, with a shuffling groove, and then the whole of the Juan Carmona Septet in later numbers, including Paco Carmona on guitar, Domingo Patricio on flute and keys, El Bachi on bass, Noémi Humanes on vocals (her melismatic, chant-like lines penetrating and evocative) and award-winning flamenco dancer Karen Lugo. Lugo’s dancing was incredibly compelling, her movements both sinuous and aggressive, with an improvisatory quality – her performance exuded vibrant spontaneity – that played off the band in both snapping movements and percussive footwork.

Sinfonia Flamenca, Sydney Symphony OrchestraKaren Lugo, the Juan Carmona Septet, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Daniela Testa

In the second half, the SSO musicians joined the Septet on stage for the Australian premiere of Carmona’s Sinfonia Flamenca, the sound world of percussive, muted guitar and surging tremolos augmented by the SSO in what was not so much a concerto for flamenco band and orchestra as an extension of the Septet, Camorna’s palette and power expanded. And the SSO musicians proved themselves adept at keeping pace with the band.

Ultimately this was more flamenco than symphonic music, but it was expertly executed. Robertson led the orchestra with energy and verve, and there were some spectacular moments of whip-crack precision, sudden stamping accents from Lugo synchronised to perfection with the orchestra. While Carmona’s crisp guitar mingled with and rose above the orchestra, Lugo was again the star, ducking offstage between movements for several dress changes – from ornate traditional flamenco dress with frilled train, to lighter attire for more agile, athletic dance styles. As in the earlier numbers, Lugo’s movements felt less like a separate voice than another texture of the ensemble – both visually and musically. There were fine solos also from the SSO, particularly Shefali Pryor – her oboe lines echoing the melismatic flamenco vocals – and Umberto Clerici on cello.

All in all, a thrilling and entertaining concert – a fascinating exploration of where symphonic music and flamenco might intersect, and a showcase of the SSO’s agility as an orchestra.

Sinfonia Flamenca plays at the Sydney Opera House until September 8