Early Thanks Given, Courtesy of DeMain and Co.

Guitarist Sharon Isbin gives us a pair of concertos


Like most people, I don’t wait for one day a year to give thanks for all the blessings poured into my life, but last Sunday was a particularly good day for Madison music lovers to get a head start on gratitude.

In closing the third set of concerts in his 24th season, John DeMain rolled out a Madison Symphony Orchestra program that should quiet the “where’s the new stuff” crowd until at least 2018… On paper, the names were mostly familiar: Copland, Rodrigo and de Falla, with Chris Brubeck added in. But the latter was not an afterthought meant to spice up an otherwise predictable palette—a closer examination reveals an exacting method of program building.

The opening Copland was not the ubiquitous Appalachian Spring or perennially popular Rodeo, but the first and least heard of Copland’s great ballets, Billy the Kid. The last time it was heard in Madison was the only time—1955. For the record, yours truly was in diapers, and maestro DeMain was wowing the folks at the Youngstown Playhouse and in his sixth-grade class.

The reading on Sunday reminded us that the 1938 work can still be bracing, the open spacing of the chords in strings and winds giving us a potent reminder of how Copland evolved from just another young modernist trying to find his way, into the composer who would largely define American symphonic music for a generation. And it was nice that the matinee opened with the MSO given the chance to go full throttle, as the next two works cut the number of players in half.

This also meant the appearance of the weekend’s soloist, guitarist Sharon Isbin (pictured above, courtesy J. Henry Fair). Last heard here in 2003, the ensuing years have been an ever-growing establishment of a legacy that, from a larger perspective, is arguably unmatched. Isbin has long ago passed from “world’s greatest female classical guitarist” to a leading candidate for “greatest classical guitarist, period.” Whether one prefers another artist over her, when we add in what she has added to her instrument’s repertoire, the case to put her on the highest pedestal is persuasive.

Case in point, she offered one of the newest works written for her, the 2015 Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra by Chris Brubeck. Yes, this is one of the sons of jazz icon Dave Brubeck; to date myself once again, I still have a vivid college memory of Dave Brubeck bringing his ensemble to campus in the mid-1970s…with a 17-year old Chris in the band.

Brubeck has given Isbin a pleasant and brief (about 14 minutes) vehicle to display her supreme technique, but on first hearing, one was struck more by the interesting orchestral details throughout the work. Part of the effect was to make one want to hear it again—but as it has yet to be recorded, we’ll have to wait a little while.

After intermission, Isbin returned in “the Rodrigo,” meaning the most-played and most popular (and for many, most beautiful) guitar concerto of them all, the Concierto de Aranjuez. For any readers who have been smitten by this irresistible work, you should know that Rodrigo wrote a lot more music for guitar, with and without orchestra, and all of it brimming with substantial charms.

Yes, most in the audience have heard it before (Isbin and DeMain teamed up for it in her 2003 appearance), but the chance to hear it live, especially under Isbin’s spell, is worth the price of admission. The only complaint on this occasion was that the amplification of Isbin’s instrument was a bit forward; it worked perfectly in the big moments, especially at the climax of the great Adagio, but here and there some special little moments (a cello solo by Karl Lavine, some delicate touches from trumpeter John Aley) were on the verge of being obscured. It was not surprising that amplification was employed—this has become standard for works like this, and a virtual necessity in a venue as large as Overture Hall—but last year, for example, a similar set-up for Ana Vidovic and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra worked much better (albeit in the more intimate Capitol Theater). That caveat aside, we did of course lose ourselves more often than not in the dance-like sprightliness of the outer movements. For the record, Jennifer Morgan delivered beautifully in the famous English horn solo in the famous slow movement.

When a soloist plays not one, but two concertos, it is not unusual for them to eschew the traditional encore; lucky for us, Isbin was happy to give us one more gem: a hold-your-breath rendition of the great and always beguiling “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” of Tarrega. It is one of those works, with its insistent strumming technique and use of the thumb, that goes from merely beautiful in the hearing to astonishing in the seeing.

While the concert had opened with ballet, and arguably continued in the spirit of the dance, it returned full circle to ballet with Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat. A couple of the dances are often heard excerpted, but this was the MSO’s first performance of the full half-hour score, complete with mezzo-soprano Anna Parks capably adding the brief vocal songs at the outset and the close. Just as he had in Madison Opera’s recent production of Carmen, DeMain lent his sensibility and sensitivity to the folksy elements of the tunes, dance-like or otherwise. The orchestra, now restored to full size, unleashed all the aural splash contained in the colorful score. With an expanded percussion section (got castanets?), substantial parts for harp and piano, and plenty of solo moments to go around, it was a major treat…just another wonderful concert to be thankful for!

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