Isbin and O’Connor provide mellow pleasures at the Harris

Mon Mar 08, 2010 at 8:36 am

By Gerald Fisher

Guitarist Sharon Isbin and violinist Mark O’Connor made their Chicago duo debut Saturday night at the Harris Theater, and O’Connor’s eclectic music proved to be the most substantial fare on the program.

Both artists are prodigiously accomplished instrumentalists as well as experienced collaborators, so the two-hour recital went by in a flash. A nice balance between solo and duo turns kept up the interest, and the mixture of styles and genres was as stimulating as it was engaging.

Sharon Isbin opened the program with some guitar recital standbards, including the much-played Segovia transcription of Albeniz’ Leyenda and Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, her technical mastery redeeming the conventional choices.

Andecy (1986) by the American guitarist-composer Andrew York and the virtuosic Waltz, Op. 8, no. 4, by legendary Paraguayan Agustín Barrios concluded the set. Particularly impressive was Isbin’s communicative command of the audience, which remained quiet and rapt throughout – no small feat for an acoustic guitarist.

O’Connor then had his solo shot in which he knocked off four contrasting compositions including the lyrical Poem, a snippet from The Call of the Mockingbird (part of a longer piece), an arrangement of Amazing Grace and Caprice No. 4, a more ambitious abstraction spotlighting his technical prowess.

The first half of the program concluded with the world premiere of an arrangement for violin and guitar of O’Connor’s most famous work, the Appalachia Waltz trio from 1993, a piece which he originally recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. In this version, arranged for Isbin, the violin and guitar take turns at leading and supporting roles and although the genius of the music remains, the technical demands of the transcription made for some tentative moments.

On the second half of the program, the artists extracted two longer works from Isbin’s Grammy-winning album Journey to the New World. Isbin’s solo effort was the Joan Baez Suite, written for her by the late English composer, John Duarte. Incorporating into its seven sections themes taken from English and American songs associated with the folk singer, it is a somewhat episodic piece which interweaves folkish themes with startling counter melodies deriving from such sources as Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the bugle call Taps and the Dies Irae.

Two shorter works by O’Connor — another Caprice and a set that showcased the violinist’s stunning technique and brought the house down with their rapid-fire dynamism.

The final piece on the program, O’Connor’s Strings and Threads Suite (written in 1986 and here adapted for violin and guitar) is an attractive chronological string of 13 short pieces representing perhaps the best type of crossover music – an infusion of popular styles and genres utilized in their original forms without condescension or attempts to improve on the original material. The strand of small gems was inspired by his own family’s migration from Ireland to the Midwest with toe-tapping jigs, reels, waltzes, spirituals, blues, western swing and jazz riffs all tied together by the common thread of the folk tradition. It was, of course, impeccably played by both artists.

The single encore was a reprise of Appalachia Waltz, this time without any unsteadiness, as the performers brought their collaboration to a close on a mellow note.

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