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Saturday, February 9, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

Romance and Romanticism in Valentine’s Day concerts

By Tom Keogh
Special to The Seattle Times

Love in its many manifestations — fiery, ethereal, earthbound, spiritual — is the theme of two intriguing Seattle concerts on Valentine’s Day.

While the Seattle Symphony Orchestra offers a little prescient Romanticism from Classical-era genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, plus Karol Szymanowski’s jagged mysticism and orchestral music from operas by French composers Gabriel-Urbain Fauré and George Bizet, Town Hall’s Global Rhythms series presents a sensual overview of Cuba’s bolero traditions.

Grammy nominee and guitarist-vocalist Juan-Carlos Formell is the star of his touring show “A Bolero to Save Your Life.”

Born in Havana in 1964, Formell is a fourth-generation Cuban player-composer who fled to the United States in 1993 in pursuit of artistic freedom. After a period of performing in New York City subways and playing on Paul Simon’s soundtrack for the stage musical “Capeman,” Formell signed with Wicklow, a label owned by the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney.

Several albums later, Formell has been critically praised for invoking his native country’s troubadour tradition, which goes back to the 19th century and originated in Santiago. But he is also highly regarded for continually developing his own postmodern take on the Cuban bolero form: a rhythmic love song synthesizing Spanish and African musical elements.

Formell’s most recent album, “Johnny’s Dream Club,” is a rare fusion of American jazz and Cuban music, reflecting the same passion for defying strict conventions that brought him to America.

His Town Hall program represents both the evolution of the bolero over more than a century and his own desire to reinvent it without losing its roots.

Asked about the show’s upbeat title, Formell says (in an email translated by his manager): “There are many [boleros] so tragic they have been known to induce people to take their own lives. So I hope to offer the antidote.”

Tragedy and hope will intermingle at Benaroya Hall as Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot conducts the orchestra through suites derived from Fauré’s 1898-1908 “Pelléas et Mélisande” (one of several works inspired by Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s tragedy of forbidden love and jealousy) and Bizet’s exotic 1874-75 “Carmen.”

Fauré wrote the incidental music in this program (including the darkly gorgeous “Sicilienne”), and Morlot compiled orchestral selections for the “Carmen” suite.

Mozart’s 1785 Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, composed at the height of his success and familiar to many for an airy, rapturous second movement closely linked to the hit 1967 Swedish film “Elvira Madigan,” is on the bill. Guest pianist Cédric Tiberghien, 37, born in France and winner of multiple international awards, will take on the piece’s expressive grandeur.

Tiberghien will also perform on what is likely the program’s most unexpected piece, Szymanowski’s fantastic, concerto-like Symphony No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra (Symphonie Concertante). From the shimmering, relentless drama of its first movement through the rippling serenity of its middle, concluding with torrential dance music, this idiosyncratic beauty will be a burst of Romanticism in Valentine’s Day romance.

Tom Keogh:

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