Plano — It is a rare occurrence to hear a guitar soloist on the program of a symphony orchestra concert. Thus, there was an air of anticipation when guitarist Sharon Isbin took the stage with the Plano Symphony Orchestra at the Eisemann Center on Jan. 18, 2020.
One of the reasons for this paucity of guitar-ness is a lack of appropriate works for the instrument with orchestra. Much to most everyone’s delight, Isbin played Rodrigo’s Concerto De Aranjuez, one of the few such works that has earned its way to a spot in the list of the so-called standard repertoire. Adding to the special interest in this concert. She played a world premiere of a work for guitar and chamber orchestra by the jazz fusion composer and trombonist, Chris Brubeck. Further, adding to the anticipation, Music Director Hector Guzman surprisingly programmed one of the more difficult of the big orchestral works, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is a dual challenge for both orchestra and conductor.
The Plano Symphony Orchestra is a per-service but professional orchestra that boasts some of the best local musicians among its members. In addition, it is quite a large group, outnumbering some other such organizations. Intonation and ensemble are usually on a high level. But the real strength of the orchestra is the dedication and support of the community it serves. While the large hall was not sold out, vacant seats were in short supply. Further, it was obvious from the warm and whole-hearted audience response that this orchestra is more than an object of community pride. Enthusiastic reception was lavished on each work on the program, even between movements (a huge no-no elsewhere). More about that later.
The program opened with Dvořák’s festive Carnival Overture. Conductor and orchestra certainly lived up to that adjective, but it felt rushed rather than exuberant. The excellent players managed but were hard-pressed to keep up with Guzman’s pace. Sometimes this happens with an over-enthusiastic start on an opening selection, and tempi were all range as the concerts progressed.
Brubeck’s slim piece, titled Affinity, was delightful. It is cast in one movement but has three distinctive sections similar to the three-movement standard form frequently employed for more extensive concerti. Brubeck stated that in addition to his own American jazz, he added an international list of influences: South American, Spanish and even some Middle Eastern exoticisms. Isbin gave it a sympathetic performance, while blending the disparate musical influences, and Guzman proved to be a fine collaborator. She used the music, which is understandable with a new work.
But when she got to the Rodrigo concerto, it was obvious that this was an old musical friend that is imbedded in her performer DNA. She tends to physical passivity while performing, with little outward facial or movement in expression of the music. However, more than in the Brubeck, this performance of the Rodrigo showed that while outwardly placid, the musical fires burn on the inside and comes out white hot.
The second half was dedicated to Bartók’s miraculous Concerto for Orchestra. The title is not just a capricious quip. it was written in 1943 for the Boston Symphony, one of the world’s best, under the baton of the superb conductor and new music advocate, Serge Koussevitzky. It truly is a concerto for the entire ensemble with virtuosic passages given to all principal players, from piccolo to tuba, as well as giving one section after another spectacularly difficult displays. The challenge for the conductor is equally formidable. Frequent mood, texture, tempo and rhythmic changes, as well as ever-present balance challenges, requires a high level of conductorial musicianship and technical mastery of baton technique.
Was it perfect? Not really. But the Plano Symphony delivered an impressive performance. Guzman could have done more to smooth over some of Bartók’s more glaring musical seams, but he never failed to bring Bartók’s difficult music to vibrant life. Further, his careful attention to balance clearly revealed most of the composer’s layered complexities.
Right from the barely audible string tremolo, Guzman’s proper deployment of dynamics was one of the exceptional aspects of this performance. His tightly controlled and clear baton technique, kept in a limited frame, contributed to the overall precision as well. When he did let loose, it was in the right place and he saved the loudest dynamics for where they belonged. Further, my earlier reservations about his conductorial abilities — admittedly it has been many years since I’ve seen him on the podium — received some necessary revisions as the concert progressed.
The solo players were all excellent, from the clowning bassoons in the second movement to an impressive turn by the viola section in the third and fourth movements, with a strong start to the fifth movement fugal passages launched by the second violas — and with everyone else in-between. The triumphal brass brought the performance to a close, as much as in celebration for Bartók as for the orchestra’s performance.
The concert also nostalgically featured the introduction of 2020 class of Symphony Debutantes. A very poised collection of high school girls in very up-to-date formal gowns and holding a single long stem rose filed on to each be crowned with glittery tiaras. This used to be something that many orchestras did in celebration of the community that supports them but is not as common in these less formal days. But unlike my recollection of such ceremonies in the past, the debutants were not attended by a similarly chosen and tuxedoed group of young lads.
Now, back to my previous mention of applause between movements. It is a subject that I have not addressed before but hearing it in this concert made me think of how this came to be.
Anyone familiar with most modern-day concerts knows, on pain of suffering distaining glances, to reserve applause for the end of multi-movement works. However, the history of concert etiquette amply demonstrates that applause between movements, even including demands that some movements be encored, was commonplace and even appreciated before the 19th century.
In Beethoven’s era, sometimes applause would greet especially beautiful or exciting passages within a movement, much like how an ice skater’s routine is greeted with gleeful applause after a particularly impressive jump. Like every law that has ever been imposed, claqueian excesses finally rose to such a problematic level that action became necessary. To assist in this attempt at enforcing civility, some composers started to write work in which the movements blended together without any, or only minimal, pause. Spontaneous applause became, shall we say, less so and eventually everyone started to take the hint.
Of course, some non-final movements are so thrilling that restraining the enthusiasm of the audience is hopeless, but that is so rare as to be remarkable when it happens. Thus, under little more than public discouragement, the applause fracas eventually gave way to inter-movement taciturnity. In most every concert since the early 20th century, we sit motionless, in what hopefully is hushed concentration, until finally released by the thawing of the conductor’s frozen final gesture.
But during the Plano Symphony’s recent concert, I began to think that we may have over-reacted. Even though the audience’s frequent applause received a chilly reception from the performers, they became reluctantly discouraged but never silenced.