Review: Guitarists steal the spotlight |

Review: Guitarists steal the spotlight

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times

Sharon Isbin brought along a couple of friends for a guitar-fest Thursday night in Harris Hall, and it resulted in one of the most extraordinary crossover concerts in years at the Aspen Music Festival.

Guitarists Stanley Jordan and Romero Lubambo have worked with Isbin for years. They recorded “Guitar Passions” with her in 2011 and toured with this program in the fall. They represent very different styles—Isbin the classicist who can cross over a bit, Lubambo combining jazz with Brazilian dance music and Jordan defying convention with his own unique virtuoso jazz technique. Though he occasionally strums or picks such as most electric guitarists, mostly he draws the sound by tapping the fingers of both hands on the neck of the instrument. The technique achieves extra transparency and facility, and he can play chords, melodies and bass lines all at once. (And, for one jaw-dropping solo spot, he duetted with himself on the piano and guitar at the same time.)

Lubambo was especially fine in his own bossa nova, “Under the Jazz Influence,” and with Jordan in an up-tempo pure jazz version of “All the Things You Are.” In various combinations, Lubambo and Jordan added their own improvisations to material played straight by Isbin, including pieces by de Falla, Granados and the Paraguayan maestro Agustín Barrios (Mangoré).

The topper was Laurindo Almeida’s three-guitar version of the familiar Adagio from Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Isbin lavished characterful expression on the guitar part and Lubambo covered the orchestra’s part with some extra jazz gestures before Jordan opened up a wonderful improvisation that segued seamlessly into a delicate finish.

Not the usual fare for an Aspen Music Festival; the best moments in this evening were unforgettable.

Wednesday at Harris Hall, a wind machine and field drum added a little extra to conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas McGegan’s annual evening exploring Baroque music. Exotic touches in Rameau’s suite from his opera “Les Indes galantes” put the capper on another smile-worthy evening with the ever-ebullient McGegan.

The whole suite was as colorful and diverse as Baroque music gets, and McGegan lit some kind of fire under the mostly student orchestra, which performed with high musicianship. The wind machine cranked up to enhance a storm sequence in “Orage et air pour Borée” at the center of the Rameau suite, and the field drum added a tom-tom effect for “Danse du Grand Calumet de la Paix,” which Rameau wrote after witnessing an actual Native American dance.

Adele Anthony romped brilliantly through J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in G minor, the central Largo movement especially enchanting, its familiar strains maintaining their momentum smartly. Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, despite some overreaching ornamentation, delivered a vibrant account of Boccherini’s full-speed-ahead Cello Concerto in B-flat major. The concert opened with Telemann’s pleasantly diverting Suite in B-flat major “Les nations anciennes et modernes,” colored by musical gestures real or imagined from Turkey, Moscow and ancient Portugal.

The American String Quartet’s annual appearance on the Harris Hall stage spanned a range of styles, from the elegant if melancholy Mozart to the overstuffed sofa that is Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet. The highlight for me, however, was a razor-sharp, intense account of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2.

The Bartók requires tremendous concentration from both players and listeners, rewarded with tangled and remarkably colorful passages that morph seamlessly with the next in endless forward propulsion. The contact between the quartet and audience was palpable; they played against a bed of utter silence. After the searching first movement and nervous but vital second, the finale seemed to float through space as it nudged this way and that, finishing with a sense of resignation. Throughout, the playing was taut and unfailingly focused.

The Mozart wove its own intricate magic, especially in the exquisitely framed slow movement and the menuetto that stopped just this side of stomping. The Dohnányi stormed from the starting gate, voicing rich harmonies more dense than Brahms might have written, pushing rhythms relentlessly. The balance with pianist Anton Nel was flawless, which allowed the individual lines to emerge clearly, at least from time to time.

Such density posed a similar challenge to the faculty artist quartet on Monday’s chamber music program when Steven Osborne’s piano overpowered Bing Wang’s violin, Steven Wyrczynski’s viola and Darrett Adkins’ cello in Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 2. Much better was the crystalline, deft playing in Brahms Viola Sonata in F minor by violist Masao Kawasaki and pianist Julian Martin.


With the Festival Orchestra having played last night’s “Aida” in the music tent, the Chamber Symphony (which usually plays Fridays) goes tonight in a concert featuring Edgar Meyer’s Double Bass Concerto in E. And, oh yes, Veronika Eberle plays Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Federico Cortese conducts. The all-student Philharmonic takes the Sunday gig with flashy violinist Sarah Chang playing Sibelius and luscious mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard singing some sultry Berlioz. Josep Caballé-Donenech conducts.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 21 years. His reviews appear twice a week in The Aspen Times.