Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin will perform this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

How do we make sense of music? How does the answer to that question change with music composed closer to or farther from our own time, or closer to or farther from the culture in which we were raised?

I don’t imagine John DeMain meant to answer those questions with the newest program from the Madison Symphony Orchestra. But he certainly raised them with this weekend's performances, featuring pieces that draw on pre-existing musical material and, presumably, expect listeners to be able to follow those associations.

The concert is bookended by Aaron Copland’s orchestral suite from Billy the Kid and selections from Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat. The two pieces are close mirrors for one another: both are early 20th century compositions (1938 and 1919, respectively); both were originally composed for ballets, and use music to bolster dramatic narrative. Both reference popular music that was likely more familiar to their original audiences than they are to audiences today.

Billy the Kid begins with “The Open Prairie,” a spacious, uncluttered stretch of music punctuated near its end with a forceful brass theme that blows in and out again like a storm. After that bit of scene setting, “Street in a Frontier Town” uses at least five different cowboy tunes, most of which are likely unknown to contemporary listeners, and whose perception is warped by Copland’s angular handling of their melodies and off-kilter re-figuring of their rhythms.

And yet the effect still somehow feels familiar — a sense of tunefulness, of variety, and, I think, Americanness. Copeland was, of course, in part responsible for creating a sense of early 20th-century American sound.

The Three-Cornered Hat is a re-telling of a love triangle from an 1874 novel. In Falla’s case, the borrowed music is the characteristic rhythms and gestures from Spanish dances — flamenco, fandango, seguidilla, farucca, chufla, and jota. Drawing from a Spanish text but composing for a Parisian audience, Falla might rightfully have assumed that only some audience members would have recognized the nuanced differences between those dances. But pretty much everybody would have heard the collective whole as distinctly Spanish, just as with Billy the Kid.

In between these sonic explorations of national identity, the real heart of the concert was Sharon Isbin, the great classical guitarist.

Isbin’s first piece was Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, composed for her by Chris Brubeck. It is an eclectic piece with sections that intentionally shift between different styles and traditions, ranging from ragtime to a neo-Renaissance dance to Middle Eastern scales. It also weaves in a melody written by the composer’s late father, the jazz great Dave Brubeck.

It was an interesting piece and led to some exciting moments, But, unfortunately, many of its details were lost due to insufficient amplification of Isbin’s fundamentally quiet instrument.

Isbin’s other collaboration with the orchestra was Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for Guitar and Orchestra (1940), arguably the most widely-performed guitar concerto and certainly the star of this show.

The opening movement, Allegro con spirito, alternates between orchestral and solo passages, so it was much easier to actually hear Isbin. The entire movement is given lift and spirit by lively, oft-shifting rhythms and guitar techniques that draw heavily from Spanish traditions.

The Adagio’s simple but meditative theme is one many listeners will recognize, and it gains complexity over the course of the movement through a series of variations. The final movement is more active, and returns to the rhythmic instability of the first movement.

Isbin’s playing throughout was thoughtful, emotionally complex, and technically extraordinary, and it was a delight to hear the under-represented instrument played by such a master.

MSO calls this concert “Troubadour: Two Faces of the Guitar,” in reference to Isbin’s pair of performances. But the historical troubadour was a musical storyteller, not just a guitar player, who focused on songs of love and courtship. It is still apt for the entire concert, though, as all four pieces use music to tell stories: of love, of nation, of style. And of musical meaning.

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