One of the most novel concerts of the season was Sunday afternoon at The Egg with classical guitarist Sharon Isbin and fiddler Mark O’Connor before a large crowd of devoted fans. The unlikely duo is the result of a collaboration made on Isbin’s “Journey to the New World” (Sony, 2009), which spun off a mini-tour this season of New York City, Chicago and Alaska.
For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney’s preview of this show, click here.
Isbin, who was making her Egg debut, and O’Connor, who has often performed there, are multi-Grammy Award winners. So no one in the crowd needed to wonder about their technical or artistic capabilities. They split the program: Isbin played a few, then O’Connor played some, and then they did a duet. They played only two tunes from the disc: Isbin alone on Andrew York’s “Andecey” and together in O’Connor’s “String and Threads Suite.”
Isbin began with an Albeniz piece, originally for piano, which Segovia arranged for guitar. Like everything she did on the program, she created an atmosphere around the work from the careful way she took up the guitar, tested its tuning, and then quietly began to play. Pacing and subtlety of dynamics and nuances are major elements in her playing. Nothing is left to chance. Her fingerwork of the extremely difficult passagework was always clean, precise and elegant.
Sometimes the soft level of her playing, particularly when that dynamic level carried over long bars of music, was too much. When the occasional louder strum occurred, it acted like a spice in a too bland meal. Yet her obvious virtuosity brought interest. In Tarrega’s “Memories of Alhambra,” she used the kind of strum that made the notes ripple. York’s piece with its more modern harmonies and pretty melody produced a more assertive tone. Isbin made Augustine deBarrios’ dance saucy and lilting.
O’Connor was comfortable and at ease throughout his compositions, which showed off his brilliant technique and folksy style. All his pieces have tons of notes at breakneck speeds often over two strings or long-lined Appalachian-type melodies with lots of trills, filigree, slides and bent notes. “Poem” – an Appalachian evocation to ocean waves; “The Call of the Mockingbird” – a flock’s smorgasbord of sound; variations on “Amazing Grace”; and his Caprice #4 were vintage O’Connor. The duet was a peaceful “Appalachian Waltz.”
Other tunes were: John Duarte’s Suite of Joan Baez-inspired songs (Isbin), another O’Connor Caprice, a delightful medley of Old American folk tunes, “Variations on Bonaparte’s Retreat” (O’Connor) and the “String” duet, which didn’t entirely flow because Isbin seemed to rein in some of O’Connor’s propulsive energy.
The encore was another “Appalachian Waltz.”