Guitar with orchestra has historically been an unusual pairing, but six-string virtuoso Sharon Isbin is changing that. She's on the short list of today's top classical guitarists, and her performance last Friday with the Nashville Symphony for "Classical Guitar, German Genius," was an ear-opening demonstration of the instrument's possibilities.
The orchestra was in fine form under the baton of guest conductor John Fiore, whose reading of the overture and "Venusberg Music" from Wagner's Tannhäuser translated into a compelling performance. Their transparent sound clarified how Wagner's distinctive and often unexpected harmonies emerge from intertwining melodic strands.
The woodwinds shone here, as they did throughout the evening—their blend perfect in the chorale-like opening. Though the scurrying chromatic filigree Wagner pours on during climaxes can be a bit overwhelming, it's wonderful to hear these figures played with such rhythmic precision, since they can easily degenerate into mush if the strings aren't really tight.
Fiore shaped the work's long phrases with patient authority. He has solid credentials as a Wagner interpreter, having led several successful productions of the Ring cycle—he actually first worked on the Ring as a pianist/coach when he was just 14.
Isbin has done much to increase her instrument's repertoire; Christopher Rouse's Concert de Gaudí was the ninth guitar concerto she has commissioned or premiered (her recording of this engaging work earned a Grammy award in 2002).
Flamenco-flavored strumming and castanets quickly place the piece in a Spanish sound-world, but this is no pastiche—Rouse works the "ethnic" materials into a somewhat surreal, dreamlike fabric. Though it nominally follows a classic three-movement template, the concerto has a fluidity of form echoing the hallucinatory quality of Antoni Gaudí's architecture, which inspired the work.
Rouse's guitar writing is highly idiomatic, giving Isbin a great platform to showcase the instrument's many colors and techniques. She ranged from a huge, rich tone in the melodic middle movement to a penetrating, tightly focused sound in more rapid-fire sections, and her tremolo was staggeringly smooth.
The orchestral palette was just as colorful as the soloist's, with its lush string backdrops, dissonant but halo-like chords in the winds, subtle and effective percussion. Rouse suggests a breath of wind by combining a shimmering cymbal with some hissing into the trombones, which sounds a lot more gimmicky in prose than it did in performance.
Isbin, who returned to the stage after the concerto for a pleasant rendition of guitarist/composer Andrew York's folk-flavored Andecy, has a simple solution to the balance problems that have typically plagued guitarists on the orchestral platform—amplification. Now, don't get squeamish: She didn't plug into a Fender Twin Reverb. Low-lying speakers directly behind her onstage blended naturally with the acoustic instrument, creating no aural confusion about the soloist's location. This way, she did not have to sacrifice subtlety to be heard, and the orchestra was not hamstrung by trying to stay out of her way.
Fiore's tasteful pacing effectively conveyed both the breezy lyricism and the Beethovenian developmental propulsion of Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 3. Intermission wasn't sufficient to clear away Rouse's varied orchestration; perhaps that's why Schumann's instrumental textures felt a bit heavy. Though the program order was conventional, opening the concert with this piece may have helped listeners hear it more sympathetically. That question aside, the performance was certainly well-executed, and particularly enjoyable was the organ-like feel of the contrapuntal fourth movement, where Schumann puts his somewhat blocky orchestration to evocative use.
With a varied and interesting repertoire, top-notch soloists and an orchestra more polished than ever, the Nashville Symphony is off to a great start this season. If you haven't made it down to the Schermerhorn Center yet this fall, stop procrastinating and get yourself a ticket.