Body & Soul

The flamenco artists worked to build the energy and tension throughout, but that goal proved hard to achieve

(l-r) Carlos Piñana, Estefania Brao Martín, and Miguel Angel Orengo
(l-r) Carlos Piñana, Estefania Brao Martín, and Miguel Angel Orengo (Photo courtesy of Arlen Nydam)

Body & Soul

Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
May 16

Until last Thursday, I honestly had no idea how many flamenco fans lived in Austin. The Long Center bustled with an enthusiastic audience, eager for the Austin Classical Guitar Society's latest evening of guitar music and dance in its FlamencoAustin series. (Before the program, ACGS hosted a preconcert show with free tapas – which I can imagine enticed some people wandering around Lady Bird Lake.)

The featured performer was Carlos Piñana, a Spaniard from a rich line of flamenco guitarists, who fuses traditional styles with a more personal and contemporary flair. The general trajectory of the hour-and-a-half program was a gradual crescendo of energy. Piñana started by playing solo, then he was joined by instrumentalists Francisco Tornero on guitar and Miguel Angel Orengo on percussion, each adding his own musical intensity to the thickening stew. Then, dancer Estefania Brao Martín performed – in three distinct acts – each progressing to the fiery conclusion.

The pinnacle of the show was Martín, whose magnetic stage presence both charmed and wowed the crowd. Initially, she sat with the musicians, rhythmically clapping (palmas) for the first 30 minutes or so, leaving the audience wondering when the dancing would come. Just as the tension began to feel unbearable, she stood up and began a series of impressive spins and steps. Her charisma was matched by an impressive and assertive battering of rhythmic footwork and spins, her angular movements as precise as they were expressive. She bolted offstage, but returned twice more in different dresses, armed first with a fan and then with castanets.

The distinctive groove of the percussion provided a heartbeat that helped the flow, but, even so, the pace of the program as a whole sometimes lagged. This was particularly true when the musical material of the solo guitar "interludes" began to wander. The ambitious goal of creating a continuous and gradual increase in tension proved difficult to achieve. It's like keeping a fire kindled. Here, though, the flames at times were accidentally extinguished by a lull in energy and had to be reignited.

Without a doubt, Piñana and his musical entourage are fantastic musicians. But flamenco originated in the hazy Andalusian cafe – a decidedly smaller venue than Dell Hall. It's possible that some of the fire I was craving was in fact there, but happening on too authentic (read: small) a scale for a listener in a venue of that size. This poses an interesting question, not only for flamencoists but for performing artists in general: How does one preserve a sense of intimacy while projecting to a large crowd? Actors use "stage whispers" and classical musicians "expressive piano" to help propel subtle ideas. It's all the more important to figure out how to achieve this effect with flamenco, because the scale is so integral to the form. This is a good problem, though, because there is clearly a spirited demand for more flamenco performances in Austin.

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Body & Soul, Austin classical music, Austin Classical Guitar Society, FlamencoAustin, Carlos Piñana, Estefania Martin, Francisco Tornero, Miguel Angel Orengo

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