The North Carolina Symphony offered a rather unusual program in the form of a concert devoted entirely to music about Spain. However, only two of the five works were by Spanish composers, and one of those was based entirely on a French piece. Led by Associate Conductor Sarah Hicks – who spoke engagingly to the audience – it was also almost entirely a light-spirited program, somewhat lacking in character variety. However, that was compensated in fair measure by the brilliant closing work of Falla.

The first piece was the well-trod Suite from Carmen, by Bizet. This began strongly, with the dark start nicely sustained and built up. The following Aragonaise gave the impression that Ms. Hicks genuinely enjoys conducting this music. The intermezzo was nicely phrased in the orchestra; one wondered if the tempo might have been slightly more relaxed. The jaunty seguidilla again showed Ms. Hicks taking evident pleasure in shaping lyrical lines. The famous Habañera featured good bright forte chords punctuating this seductive dance, suggesting the will-o-the-wisp Carmen very well. The concluding Toreador music shared that bright sound and ended the set convincingly. An oddity came during an extended string line, when Ms. Hicks, rather than projecting legato with her stick, was rhythmically beating the character of the accompaniment.

The Bizet was followed by another treatment of the same piece: the Carmen Fantasy by Sarasate. From a programmatic standpoint, one could argue that it was an interesting second take on the previous music. For this listener, it was a bit redundant. However, some of that was dispelled by the appearance in this piece of the superbly talented young violinist Sein An. At 14 years old, she tossed off this difficult piece with barely the appearance of effort. Her pitch and phrasing were perfectly controlled. What will presumably still develop is the passionate, full-blooded side of this music. Its mercurial mood changes and colors were largely held in check by the evident care devoted to a phrased and virtuosic performance. It goes without saying, however, that listeners can deservedly expect to hear a great deal more from Sein An.

Chabrier’s España continued the program. This romp through a picture-perfect Spain – Chabrier wrote it after being transported by the country during a trip there – was all that one might have expected and hoped: jaunty, sunny, and colorful.

The ballet music from Massenet’s Le Cid shared these qualities. Orchestra and conductor shone in bright, tightly rhythmic playing. The aragonaise featured fine softs as well. Due to this being a shortened program played without intermission, four out of the seven numbers from the full set were included.

The final work was the second suite from Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat (the first was omitted due to time). Coming after a program of music about Spain, here was a piece of true Spanish music, written by a Spaniard. The difference was something of a revelation. Falla finds the colors in the orchestra to capture the essence of his country. Particularly in the winds and the trumpets, his tones shimmer and scintillate. The Miller’s Dance caught in parts a sultry, wistful quality. The Final Dance was soaring, passionate and full-throated, bracingly rhythmic. After this music – and its colorful performance – one felt that España had truly entered and possessed the hall and its audience.

This concert, including parts omitted in Raleigh, will be repeated in Wilmington on November 6.  See our sidebar for details.