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Isbin plays guitar at MSO with precision

January 21, 2001

Isbin plays guitar at MSO with precision



One of the highest compliments that can be given to a musician is to acknowledge the ability to diminish the importance of his or her instrument. All I want to hear is the music rather than technical challenges that are inherent to each instrument.

With Sharon Isbin, I just heard beautiful music. I didn't hear any string buzzes, strained scale passages or poorly prepared fingernails, etc. The nails on a classical guitarist's right hand help to enhance and project the sounds of the guitar. The design and care of those nails is incredibly important to the musicality and execution of the music.

The great artists say that they are merely vehicles through which their art form passes. Isbin has achieved that status. It is obvious that she has honed her musical gifts with an incredible work ethic and passion.

Her passion was evident during the second half of the concert when she graced the audience with an outstanding performance of "Recuerdos De La Alhambra" by Francisco Tarrega. This was an unscheduled piece that she agreed to play after being coaxed by the conductor. Isbin referred to this conversation, joking that it was very easy for her to honor this request. This was a gesture to the audience that Isbin was comfortable and enjoying her interactions with the conductor, the orchestra and the audience.

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The most difficult challenge in this piece was to separate the two melody lines. The treble line maintains a constant tremolo (played by the top three fingers), while the thumb simultaneously performs the bass line. Isbin did an outstanding job of both.

My afternoon started with Prelude, the preconcert discussion led by Elizabeth Schulze. Schulze discussed the orchestral pieces and Isbin provided commentary on the two pieces that were to feature guitar and orchestra. This was very informative and gave me some insight into the personalities of the performers and their desires to articulate their passions with great interest. It really did set the tone for what would prove to be a great concert.

Schulze is an outstanding conductor. She was extremely well prepared, exhibiting a wonderful ability to convey ideas, emotions and rhythmic motifs. It is obvious that the orchestra has great affection for her and that she has gained their full trust. It was especially evident in the last composition, "The Three-Cornered Hat." She was the Spanish matador that would lead the orchestra and audience through the story line. I knew exactly what she wanted - by her stage presence and movements - and so did the orchestra. They were hanging onto her every gesture with anticipated excitement looming around every corner. It was a lot of fun. Like Isbin, Schulze was able to be a vehicle for the music, averting all technical barriers.

The Aranjuez concerto brought some new excitement for me. At the end of the cadenza (second movement), Isbin's use of a pick on the fast, dissonant notes was very effective.

That was something that I had not thought of. I am going to perform the piece this spring and am always interested in what other guitar players are doing to make the piece their own.

The only thing that did not go as planned was the harmonics at the very end of the second movement. They are supposed to be bold, as they represent the ascension of the composer Rodrigo's baby. The entire movement represents the sadness that Rodrigo felt as he wrestled with God's plan for his stillborn child and his deathly ill wife. At the end of the movement, the harmonics represent his willingness and pleasure in giving his baby and his sadness up to God.

Regardless of whether the harmonics were or were not intended to be performed, this was a live concert with world class performers. Exciting!

I hope that Isbin will return soon, and I wish Hagerstown and the orchestra much continued success in the coming year.

David H. Reynolds is a classical guitarist who instructs guitar at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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