Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin will perform this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

For the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s November concert series, maestro John DeMain programmed music he hopes will be either new to his audience or an instant crowdpleaser.

Or, if all goes well, both.  

The concert, set for Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall, combines influences from jazz, American folk music and romantic Spanish guitar.

“I thought, a contemporary American first half and a Spanish second half,” said DeMain, back when he was announcing the season in spring. “It’s a really different kind of concert and I think it will be really interesting.

“Hopefully, it will bring in some different audience members as well.”

DeMain will open with a suite from Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” ballet, which celebrates the pioneer spirit of the American West with echoes of cowboy songs and American folk music.

The dance theme returns at the end of the concert with the full ballet score of Manuel de Falla’s “The Three Cornered Hat” from 1919. The orchestra has previously played suites from this ballet, but so far as DeMain knows, never the whole 30-minute work.

In between, Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin joins the orchestra for several works.

Chris Brubeck, the son of jazz great Dave Brubeck and a composer in his own right, wrote “Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra,” for and in collaboration with Isbin. She premiered it in Maryland in 2015.

“The piece uses a lot of wonderful jazz influences as well as Middle Eastern themes,” said Isbin. “The center section is a real tribute to his father and uses a beautiful ballad that he had penned, that Chris arranged and adapted for the concerto.”

With their mutual touring schedules and Isbin’s commitments to The Julliard School — she’s director of the guitar department — “Affinity” took years to come to fruition. It draws on syncopated jazz rhythms, a romantic waltz and, as Isbin mentioned, a melody that Dave Brubeck composed to evoke autumn and the changing leaves.  

“Sharon wanted a new concerto that had a global approach to the guitar and wasn’t confined to one particular style,” Brubeck wrote in a program note. “Many genres are combined to create this 14-minute piece.

“There are no separate movements. Instead there are simply flowing, contrasting musical areas that we chose to explore.”

Following the Brubeck, Isbin and the symphony will play a modern classic, the “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo. Rodrigo was a renowned 20th century Spanish composer with whom Isbin was personal friends until his death in 1999. (She included one of his works on her most recent album with Isabel Leonard.)

Isbin played the same Rodrigo piece with the MSO in 2003, and it’s among the genre’s greatest hits. She told a Cap Times reporter in ’03 that the concerto is “a classic of all music, not just the guitar,” adding that “it’s reported to be the most frequently performed concerto ever written for any instrument.”

The slow movement in particular “speaks to the essence of the Spanish soul, its passion, its yearning, its nostalgia and sadness and loss,” Isbin said now. “All of that is in the piece. That’s why it’s so moving to people.

“I have had the honor of recording it several times,” she added. “The most recent is with the New York Philharmonic on a five CD box set … it’s still the only recording out of more than 2,000 they’ve ever done with a guitar soloist.”

Isbin has been a frequent visitor to Wisconsin on various tours over the years. She last played the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2015 with Leonard, an operatic soprano. Their new album, “Alma Española,” was released this summer.

“More than half the composers on ‘Alma Española’ were forced to flee or murdered by a Fascist government,” Isbin said, adding that the music “speaks to our troubled times.”

Isbin will be featured on a live interview on Wisconsin Public Radio’s program “The Midday” with Norman Gilliland, set for noon on Thursday. She’s also teaching a master class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on Saturday morning.

“It’s always wonderful to return to a place I’m fond of,” Isbin said. “I look forward to collaborating again with these spectacular musicians on a new work that audiences will not have heard.

“Listeners react (to the Brubeck) with tremendous enthusiasm. It has such a vivacious energetic and jazz-inspired feeling.”

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