Guitarist Isbin shows her mastery in Coral Gables

By David Fleshler

The guitar occupies a difficult place in the classical music world. Long a preeminent pop music instrument, it has a relatively small classical repertoire, a limited dynamic range and the opportunity for only one or two real stars to emerge every generation.

  Sharon Isbin, who performed Thursday in Coral Gables, is the instrument’s reigning star. Her classical credentials are impeccable: Grammy award winner, first guitarist to make a recording with the New York Philharmonic, founder and chair of Juilliard’s guitar department. Beyond the concert hall, she appears frequently on NPR’s All Things Considered and A Prairie Home Companion, and performed for the soundtrack to Martin Scorcese’s film. The Departed.

  Her drawing power was clear in her performance at Coral Gables Congregational Church for the Community Arts Program summer series, as organizers had to set up extra chairs to handle the crowd.

   Her manner is dramatic. As she plays, she closes her eyes and leans into the guitar or holds her head up as if staring into the distance. But there wasn’t a hint of showing off in her playing, despite her clear mastery of the instrument. Difficult rapid notes and complex accompanying passages came off without any strain, as she appeared to put all her energy into drawing out the music. Her palette of tone colors was vast – rounded, bell-like tones for melodies in the upper strings for the Granados Spanish Dance No. 5, delicate tremolos for Tarrega’s famous, mandolin-like Recuerdos de la Alhambra, sharp needle thrusts and grand sweeps of the right hand for Albeniz’s even more famous Asturias. 

   Isbin has a commendable history of commissioning new works for guitar by composers including John Corigliano, Lukas Foss and Joseph Schwantner. Her performance Thursday including two works written for her, the first the engagingly atmospheric Black Decameron by the Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, a meditative, harmonically rich work inspired by African love songs.  

 The second commissioned work was John Duarte’s 2002 Joan Baez Suite, a seven-movement piece that takes folksongs such as The House of the Rising Sun and Where have all the Flowers Gone and elaborates on them with unusual harmonies and bits of classical repertoire, such as Purcell’s aria When I am Laid in Earth and Schubert’s song Trockne Blumen.

If any instrument can make connections between the classical and popular worlds, it’s the guitar. Yet in this work, the need for all these elaborations and combinations wasn’t clear, and both classical and folk elements seemed diminished by being thrown together.

   Isbin’s superb musicianship and effortless technique came off best in the more idiomatic works of A lbeniz, Tarrega and a few others who took best advantage of the guitar’s melodic and harmonic capabilities.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Guitarist Isbin shows her mastery in Coral Gables”

  1. Posted Jul 17, 2009 at 4:17 pm by judith redman

    Beautiful, absolutely beautiful!! Thank you so for sharing your incredible talent, and know it ( and you ) are appreciated!! judith redman

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Fri Jul 17, 2009
at 12:34 pm
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