Sharon Isbin Has an “Affinity” for Music

Sharon Isbin Affinity-5-3-1400 x 1400

AFFINITY / C. BRUBECK: Concerto for Guitar & Orch.1 BROUWER: El Decameron Negro. A. LAURO: Waltz No. 3, Natalia.2 DUN: Seven Desires for Guitar. DANIELPOUR: Of Love and Longing3 / Sharon Isbin, gtr; 1Maryland Symphony Orch., cond. Elizabeth Schulze; 2Colin Davin, gtr; 3Isabel Leonard, voc / Zoho ZM 202005

This rather strange CD came to me only as a download from a promoter who works nearly 100% with jazz and jazz-influenced pop music, but I suspected something was different when I saw the name of Richard Danielpour, a strictly classical composer, on the promo sheet and also noted that Chris Brubeck had written a guitar concerto for her. And sure enough, Sharon Isbin is not a jazz guitarist, but a classical guitarist who apparently enjoys playing modern repertoire. Well, good for her!

Chris Brubeck’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra is a crossover work similar to some of the things his father wrote. Although in one continuous movement lasting over 16 minutes, it does include different sections, the first of which is a fast one with some interesting syncopation and a bass line played pizzicato like a jazz bassist. I was delighted to hear how well the Maryland Symphony Orchestra adapted to this music, giving it the right bounce and inflection. Isbin has a superb technique and does a fairly good job of catching the syncopations properly. At 4:28, the music moves into its slow section, a piece that has some Latin music overtones albeit ones more related to Latin pop music rather than jazz—a very sentimental melody in conventional harmony. At 9:11 we move into what might be termed the “Scherzo” section, again Latin-influenced but in a bouncy 3 tempo with a tambourine heard prominently in the background and, a bit later on, handclapping as the rhythm breaks up and becomes a more complex 9/8. Here, too, Brubeck’s writing for the orchestra almost sounds like an improvisation. This section eventually becomes wilder before a slow guitar cadenza at 12:29 emerges. Then, at 13:28, the finale, a rollicking, driving piece that almost sounds like Middle Eastern music mixed with a jazz beat. Overall, a very interesting piece.

Leo Brouwer’s El Decameron Negro is a suite of three ballads inspired by African love stories, written especially for Isbin. But these are not all slow, drippy ballads; the music includes some interesting eighth-note runs and the harmony, though tonal, moves around interestingly. Indeed, in the first of these, “El Arpa del Guerrero,” Brouwer plays the contrasts between these busy sections and the more lyrical ones quite interestingly, introducing what sounds like modal harmonies. I was also delighted but surprised to hear Isbin play her guitar in these pieces with a bit more energy and more “metal” in her sound, which is wholly appropriate to Latin music. In the third piece, “Balada de la Doncella Enamorada,” Brouwer takes Isbin into some quite exotic harmonic territory and asks her to play the guitar in more of a Spanish Gypsy style, which she does and quite well. This is really not the kind of piece you’d hear on your local classical radio station; it’s just a bit too edgy and modern-sounding.

Natalia is a waltz by Antonio Lauro arranged for two guitars by her partner on this track, Colin Davin. This is much more in the South American pop style and, although very well played, is more of a charming trifle.

No so, however, Tan Dun’s Seven Desires for Guitar, written for Isbin in 2002. This is a really edgy modern work using multiple rhythmic devices as well as demanding some string- and guitar body-slapping by the performer. The rhythms seem to want to tend towards normalcy, but Dun keeps breaking them up in asymmetric patterns and at times almost makes Isbin’s acoustic guitar sound like an electric with feedback, so percussive are the effects he calls for…and she is up to the challenge in each and every section. As a footnote, I can also tell you that this is a VERY technically difficult piece to play. Also on this CD are Richard Danielpour’s three little love songs for voice and guitar.

Overall, a very interesting disc, with pride of place definitely going to the Dun and Brubeck works.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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