SHARON ISBIN: GUITAR WITH SOMETHING EXTRA
By Joseph McLellan November 28, 1997
The amplified guitar can be a musical instrument but seldom is; this is something we have learned, sadly, since the 1950s. Wednesday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the amplified guitar was a supremely musical instrument -- thanks to the skilled work of guitarist Sharon Isbin and the creative imagination of composers Joaquin Rodrigo and Joseph Schwantner. Isbin was the soloist, with associate conductor Elizabeth Schulze leading the National Symphony Orchestra, in Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez and Schwantner's " . . . From Afar (Fantasy for Guitar and Orchestra)."
There was no visible evidence of the amplification, and its sound was wonderfully discreet, but the guitar had a vivid presence among Rodrigo's delicate pastels and Schwantner's often muscular textures that would be impossible au naturel, even in the remarkable new acoustics of the Concert Hall. Rodrigo's concerto is one of the most popular compositions of the 20th century, for reasons that were readily apparent in this performance. Isbin and Schulze worked together smoothly, and the NSO reveled in the music's subtle shades, with particularly fine work by the woodwinds.
Schwantner's work, played by the NSO for the first time, can be regarded, in a way, as an amplification -- a very musical amplification -- of guitar music. All of its themes and motifs were originally conceived on the guitar by Schwantner, a guitarist. They are translated into a variety of orchestral (largely percussive) gestures by the composer, who is one of the great living masters of orchestration, but some guitaristic quality remains in the final product and stands out in dialogues with the soloist, for whom the music was composed.
Schulze conducted sensitively and intelligently, with high energy and fine control of the orchestra throughout the program. The evening began with Mendelssohn's "Hebrides" Overture and ended with a colorful, rousing performance of Respighi's "Pines of Rome," overpowering in its last movement.
One of the salient qualities of Schulze's conducting emerged most clearly in the Schwantner. I have sat watching more than one eminent conductor in action and wondering, frankly, how his movements (not only with the baton but often a sort of dance) related to the sounds flowing from the orchestra. This is never a question with Schulze on the podium; her graceful, expressive gestures are always clearly linked to what is happening in the music -- pacing, balancing and shaping it. This was particularly important and -- happily -- particularly evident in Schwantner's music, with frequent, abrupt changes of pace and texture that were always clearly reflected and controlled in the conductor's signals. It must be a joy to play under her direction, as it is to be in her audience. – Joseph McLellan