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Viva España!, Sharon Isbin, guitar (NY Philharmonic debut), New York Philharmonic, Bramwell Tovey, conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, June 24, 2004 (BH)


Chabrier: España, Rhapsody for Orchestra (1883)

Massenet: Ballet music from Le Cid (1885)

Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez (1939)

Ravel: Alborada del gracioso (1904-05, orch. 1918)

Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34 (1887)

Falla: Suite No. 2 from El sombrero de tres picos (1916-21)


I wonder how many concerts over the years, worldwide, have begun with España? As far as crowd-pleasing openers go, it would be hard to top, despite its unfortunate reputation in some circles as "classical music lite." I confess that it is a childhood favorite of mine, and I can’t recall the last time I heard it live. (Those interested in a terrific recording might investigate Charles Dutoit’s with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.)


So what a pleasure to hear it, even if (possibly since it was the first of two nights) the balances seemed occasionally a bit brash and off-kilter, and there were a few minor sour notes here and there. But guest conductor Bramwell Tovey, long interested in jazz as well, seemed perfectly at home in this and the rest of this summer buffet. Chabrier’s orchestration offers many opportunities for an ensemble to shine, and in the right hands escapes that cloying feeling that can unfortunately set in all too easily.

Massenet’s music from Le Cid had not been performed by the Philharmonic since 1914, and maestro Tovey took full advantage of this astonishing statistic by jesting with the audience, "Perhaps some of you were there?" With well-chosen remarks prefacing each work, Tovey’s delivery and humor during the evening often had the audience laughing out loud. Before Capriccio Espagnol, he recounted that although Rimsky-Korsakov apparently never set foot in Spain, he did find himself on a ship moored thirty miles offshore: "So if you want to know what kind of a piece you can write from that vantage point, here it is." And just prior to the fiery Falla, Tovey sighed with deadpan relief, "Ah, at last we come to a work written by an actual Spaniard."

Anyway, back to the Massenet, which surely deserves a hearing more often than once every ninety years. Although I’m not that familiar with much of the composer’s work, I thoroughly enjoyed this excerpt and Tovey seemed to find exactly the right approach for it. Much of the repertoire on this program can sound foursquare if not done with a certain lightness of hand, and again, perhaps Tovey’s affinity for jazz was exactly what was required.


The evening was full of surprises, including Ms. Isbin’s debut. Not only was it slightly shameful that this fabulous musician had never performed with the Philharmonic, but also that the orchestra had not collaborated with a guitar player – any guitar player – in twenty-six years. Rodrigo’s Concierto is possibly his best-known work, and Isbin gave it delicious life, aided by a deliberately scaled-back, quieter ensemble. Performing from memory, Isbin’s nimble sensitivity was a joy, and I can only add, let’s hope she appears more often. (Note: if I interpreted Tovey’s introduction properly, he said Isbin would be "helped" a bit to bring out the volume, meaning that Isbin was slightly miked. The result was not unpleasant, but I note it for those monitoring trends in the use of amplification in the concert hall.) The audience loved her, and she responded with a delicate encore, Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, using some mandolin-style strumming as a backdrop to some elegant fingerwork.


After the interval came a nicely shaped Alborada del gracioso, another piece that somehow doesn’t seem to find its way into the concert hall that often – at least here, since the Philharmonic hadn’t played it since 1998. Tovey coaxed some beautifully liquid woodwind sounds from the group, and made the most of Ravel’s sometimes roaring climaxes. The Rimsky-Korsakov, played exhilaratingly fast, also received an additional shot of adrenalin with concertmaster Glenn Dicterow sailing through the violin solos, and the Falla excerpts made an energetic, not to mention idiomatic close.


All-in-all, this made a fun, generous program, and for those of us who sometimes crave Mahler’s angst a bit too often, a welcome reminder that sometimes a little trip to the Costa del Sol is exactly what one’s ears need.


Bruce Hodges


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