Recital Review



Isbin & Morgenstern Headline Appalachian Summer Festival

June 23, 2003 - Boone, NC:


The 19th season of An Appalachian Summer Festival presented guitarist Sharon Isbin and festival Artistic Director Gil Morgenstern, violin, on June 28 at Rosen Concert Hall, Broyhill Music Center in Boone.The 8:00 p.m. start time drew 75% capacity audience representing a mix of local supporters, transient summer residents and ASU faculty and students. Isbin was the headliner, on stage all night except during a violin solo. This program was in trouble right from the beginning and for one reason or another had a hit and miss character all night. In fact some audience members left. More on that in a minute.

The program began with a reading - literally - of Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto in D, R.V. 93 (P.209), for guitar (actually mandolin or lute) with string trio accompaniment. Isbin's overt C2 vertebrae-snapping head-toss started off the first movement. Her much vaunted Cane Audio wireless amplification system was present but perhaps the settings weren't ideal with only one rehearsal as baseline. There were balance problems; tasto guitar playing got lost or buried, and whole phrases were often inaudible. The second movement produced a glaring wrong note early. Repeated sections were ornamented. The third movement featured a brisk tempo and well articulated scales. The string players were not acknowledged - unless you have efficient deductive reasoning and are quick at reading a 109 page Playbill - but their playing was impeccable. For the record, Janna Lower, violin, Carol Cook, viola, and Ole Akahoshi, cello, all members of The Broyhill Ensemble, provided wonderful, elegant, and professional ensemble accompaniment. First rate!

Next, the program order was changed to advance guitar solos by Francisco Tarrega and Isaac Albeniz. The worn-out tremolo warhorse "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" appeared as a hackneyed nod to popular convention. Isbin's tremolo was not up to the standard of her recordings. By way of introduction, she made reference to her performance of this work at the 9/11 Memorial service in NYC, "the reading of the names." This did not set well among all audience members, for it had the air of self-aggrandizement on the back of a major national tragedy. Some audience members left. There followed "Asturias," the equally worn-out staple from Albeniz's Cantos de España , Op. 232, in a transcription incorrectly attributed to Segovia. It was not, as anyone could confirm with a trip upstairs to the Music Library. There was nothing particularly memorable about the performance. Plenty of facility and fast notes, but boring.

Closing the first half were six of the seven songs from Manuel DeFalla's Suite Populaire Espagnole , Op. 47, in a transcription by Emilio Pujol with the lyric melody played on violin. The evening picked up a notch with Morgenstern's big, clear sound and confidence-inspiring stage presence. Suddenly the Cane Audio system was working to bring the guitar up to a satisfactory level with violin. The music is based on Spanish folk songs and widely performed in many combinations. One editorial change to Nana recapped the closing phrase an octave higher - a good adjustment for both effect and timing. Here the guitarist displayed great precision in portamento and expressive timing.

Across intermission a sample of audience members revealed a pleasant enough evening but a concern for Isbin's apparent pretentious air and lame programming. Some students were darkly plotting ticket refund strategy; another said flatly "I don't need this. I'm going upstairs to practice."

Too bad, because Gil Morgenstern opened the second half with riveting solo Bach, the Adagio and Fuga from the Sonata in G minor (S.1001). He showed the house humility, character, passion, pathos and Big Art. His 1850s-era Vuillaume violin filled the room with tasteful articulation, voicing, beautiful legato and wonderful intonation. Elegant ornaments and seamless counterpoint were a feast for the ear. By sheer force of stage presence he commanded audience silence between movements. The Fuga featured that typical barking bass line, wonderful clarity of middle counterpoint, and relaxed phrasing to define the beginning and close of ideas. His diminutive physique looked seven feet tall on stage. The audience, too, recognized these traits and warmly rewarded his artistry.

Then Isbin returned with another solo set, a timely performance of John Duarte's Appalachian Dreams , Op. 121, written in 1996 for guitar... ah! excuse me!... written for Isbin. The setting is five familiar folk melodies, including "Foggy Foggy Dew," "Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair," and "Darling Cora." Duarte is a prolific composer of guitar music, and his familiar harmonic language and treatment of melody is often unique and provocative. But once again the Cane Audio system was either off or adjusted badly, so we simply couldn't hear details. Isbin plays the best instrument you can buy, a 1988 Thomas Humphrey Millennium guitar, but the difference between solo and ensemble sets points toward a fundamental problem elsewhere.

The program ended with a reading of Arthur Levering's arrangement of Six Rumanian Folk Dances by Bela Bartók. originally for piano alone. Suddenly the guitar was amplified, and the restored balance allowed both instruments welcome give-and-take roles. The concluding two movements brought the most exciting playing of the whole program, and it's hard to beat violin performances of any Bartók. Again, Morgenstern proved why he is so highly regarded.

Isbin returned alone for a single encore: Agustin Barrios-Mangore's Vals, Op. 8, No. 4. Here a blinding-fast tempo obscured the waltz signature, illogical and grotesque rubatos gave pause in search of The Point, and a specific marking in the score for "lento" was completely ignored. That said, the C section, marked "capabello," was quite possibly the most beautiful I've ever heard.

See what I mean? Hit and miss. Too picky? No. Isbin's era has ended.

I first heard the guitarist in June 1975 in Toronto, where she won first prize in a competition ahead of Manuel Barrueco and Eliot Fisk. At the time, this finishing order caused widespread consternation because her ambition and technical facility alone were not viewed as "championship form" when compared with the formidable skills and artistry of the runners-up. No, I don't think it was a "woman thing," but there was much head scratching in search of exactly what the judges valued vs. what seemed obvious to everyone else.

In 2003 this American guitarist has accrued a vast and glittering résumé (including a Grammy) that suggests more than was actually delivered on this night. The impression is that her entire persona is a product of unbridled, persistent, and myopic promotion of image alone. Such consistent efforts at career advancement, while laudable landmarks of American business, mark a single-minded devotion to the self rather than meaningful artistic identity or the soul of aural art. Her recordings are prosaic and adequate, but not great. Like Wayne Newton singing Verdi and the public should accept it?

There are now hundreds of classical guitarists worldwide who have searched for and found credible technical solutions to advance a unique and compelling identity interpreting music - and who can adequately fill a large room with sound. Fast fingers and a fine smile aren't enough anymore. No discredit to her achievements and hard work is intended. It is clear that Isbin has a wonderful seamless portamento, efficient hinge bars, and clean and brisk scale work, and she certainly knows her way around the instrument. But hey, this evening's program could have been phoned in and saved everybody eighteen bucks.

Too much hubris. Not enough art.

*We welcome Roger A. Cope to the pages of CVNC . He is a guitarist, currently serving on the faculty of Brevard College, and he publishes the outstanding e-mail newsletter, Guitar News ©, available upon request to cihr@mchsi.com . See our Western Calendar for his next concert, in Highlands, on July 30.