It would be hard — make that nearly impossible — to find an American classical guitarist more influential than Sharon Isbin. Her jaw-dropping technique and lyrical interpretations have helped bring the guitar into the classical mainstream, and a rather spectacular array of new masterworks has been written expressly for her. So it was a treat to hear Isbin perform Friday night at the Church of the Epiphany, where she combined staples of the repertoire with newer works that pushed the guitar into provocative, edgy new realms.
The theme of the program was memory — “the composer looking back,” as Isbin put it — and there was a certain emotion-recollected-in-tranquillity tone to the evening. A genial little samba by Isaias Savio got things rolling, followed by Isaac Albeniz’s “Mallorca” and mesmerizing “Asturias,” light-filled works tossed off with great charm and color. But the music turned darker — and infinitely stranger — with Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturnal After John Dowland, Op. 70.” Dating from 1963, it’s a wildly imaginative masterpiece, a phantasmagoric journey through the feverish and often unsettling world of the subconscious. Isbin, who conjures an extraordinary palette of sound from her instrument, turned in a wonderfully shadowy reading that resolved with great tenderness into Dowland’s original theme. The effect was like waking from a deep and compelling dream.
The evening’s second half was nearly as intriguing. Bruce MacCombie’s “Nightshade Rounds,” with its shimmering cascades of repeated notes, was written for Isbin more than three decades ago but is still a delight, and Andrew York’s agreeable, folk-flavored “Andecy” served as a sort of resting spot among the more adventurous works on the program. And few new works are as adventurous as “Seven Desires for Guitar,” written for Isbin by the Chinese composer Tan Dun. Combining flamenco-style foot-stomping with the bent notes of the ancient Chinese pipa, it’s a freewheeling work with a kind of elemental energy and anything-goes, postmodern lack of inhibition. Agustin Barrios Mangore’s classic “La Catedral” closed the program, interrupted faintly — and a bit poetically — by the bells of the church.
Brookes is a freelance writer.