It’s 10 pm, and the twilight blue sky over Granada is woven through with the last threads of daylight. Imagine entering the impressive colonnaded round courtyard at the heart of Charles V’s unique Renaissance palace as the intoxicating smell of jasmine wafts in through the open roof. You take a seat among the murmuring hundreds who have also gathered under the southern Spanish stars. The discordant harmonies of the orchestra warming up fade away into the warn night, as does the chatter from the audience. A deep quiet settles, broken only by the whoosh of wind through the wings of a group of diving starlings high above. The symphony begins and the architectural beauty, musical harmony and natural splendour form a concordance that one can only find at Granada’s International Festival of Music and Dance.
Well before 1952, Granada had established herself as a center for contemporary artists to gather and perform new work, as well as perform work from the hallowed canon of those artists that came before them. As early as the mid-19th Century, visiting symphonies from Europe were invited to play inside Charles V’s then-unfinished palace. In 1922, the famed Concurso de Canto Jundo organized by granadino composer Manuel de Falla, was endorsed by Frederico Garcia Lorca and represented a revival of classical Spanish dance and music. The festival reanimated interest in these increasingly “folk” and marginalized arts by gathering an international coterie of musicians and dancers in Granada’s mythic locale. The roots of the current Festival are deep and well-established.
Aside from the world-class quality of the performers – who this year will include, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Spanish National Dance Company, the BBC Philharmonic and performers from Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Theater – the setting is what draws people from far and wide. There are a number of venues in operation for the festival, which runs from the 17th of June to the 8th of July, but the main draws are undoubtedly those within the Alhambra palace complex. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Alhambra was built in the mid-13th Century by the Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar. The palace was the jewel in the crown of the Nasrid dynasty, the last Muslim dynasty to rule in Spain.
The two venues within the large Alhambra complex where you can see performances as part of the festival are the open air Generalife theater and the aforementioned Palace of Charles V. As part of this year’s festival, the massive circular open air courtyard at the heart of Charles’ 16th Century addition to the Alhambra, will host performances by, among others, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Symphony of the Spanish National Radio and Television Corporation. The former’s performance is a tribute to both Cervantes and Shakespeare – both of whom are being celebrated this year, as 2016 marks the 400th year anniversary of their deaths. Little known and mind-blowing fact: Cervantes and Shakespeare died within one day of each other.
The Generalife theater, set inside the gardens that neighbor the Alhambra, was purpose built for the festival in the early 1950’s and will host the Ballet of the National Theater of Prague, a performance of Balanchine’s iconic Apollo, as well as new work by Eva Yerbabuena, the flamenco legend who hails from Granada and who has demonstrated the contemporary relevance of this classical form of dance. Towering Italian cypress trees form the dramatic backdrop to the stage. Watching dance against this scene of natural beauty inevitably makes the viewer think about the relationship between art and nature. It creates a stunning contrast between the formal elements of classical dance, a form that tames the wildness of the human body and the manicured gardens which also reflect a domestication of the chaotic natural world that surrounds us.
Additional venues spread throughout the city also highlight the depth and diversity of Granada’s history. For instance, the Corral del Carbon, with its creeping vines and cobbled courtyard will host several concerts – most notably, a performance by the Cuban classical guitarist Ali Arango who will be playing work composed by two of the grandfathers of Cuban guitar: Leo Brouwer and Joaquin Clerch. The Corral is one of the oldest original remnants of Muslim architecture in Granada. Dating back to the 14th Century, it was an inn for merchants of all stripes and the yard functioned as a place to store coal, hence the name. The Festival is not the only one to capitalize on the space for the purposes of performance – since the 16th Century, it has hosted a multitude of musical and theatrical works. This intimate courtyard under the stars comes alive with the staccato echoes of Spanish classical guitar and continues a five centuries long tradition of musical waves beating against its ancient columns which bear the script of the city’s Muslim past.
As part of your festival experience, you can also see performances in the 16th Century Monastery of St. Jerome and the Royal Hospital’s Patio de los Mármoles, both of which were commissioned by the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella. With these varied and impressive venues in play, attending the festival is an exercise in tracing the locations of power across several dynasties, from the Muslim Nasrid, to the rule of the Castilian monarchs, to the consolidation of Christendom under the Holy Roman Empire. There are precious few festivals like Granada’s that make such a commitment to both the quality of the content and the singularity of the space in which it is performed. A dancer on point, legs strong, arms reaching to the sky reflects the solidity of a nearby Renaissance column whose beauty betrays the effort it expends in holding the building aloft. A lilting tragic cello solo echoes into a space whose elegance reflects the harmony of the composer’s melody. The Granada International Festival of Music and Dance is nothing short of great works of art in collision with each other. The effect is close to magic.