WFP review, Miller, Isbin

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MCO shocks, soothes with concert debuting Isbin, Miller

by Holly Harris, Winnipeg Free Press

The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra presented an eclectic grab-bag of string-orchestra works Tuesday that equally shocked the senses and soothed the soul.

Its penultimate concert of the season featured acclaimed guitarist Sharon Isbin making her Winnipeg debut. Also making her MCO première was guest conductor Tania Miller. Now in her 12th season with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra — and notably the first Canadian woman to lead a major orchestra in our country — the maestra immediately charmed the mostly older crowd of 680 at the Westminster United Church with her warmth, imaginative approach and ability to connect with listeners.

Let’s hope the MCO brings this musical gem back — and soon.

The program opened with John Estacio’s brooding Such Sweet Sorrow, a CBC-commissioned work penned for the MCO in 2001. This satisfying piece featured rhapsodic solos performed by concertmaster Karl Stobbe and principal cellist Desiree Abbey.

Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D Minor, Op. 5, No. 12, inspired by Corelli’s La Folia variations saw Miller crisply leading the players through its many contrapuntal twists and turns. The smaller concertino group — Stobbe, Abbey, principal second violinist Rodica Jeffrey and harpsichordist William Bonness, effectively played off each other.

Isbin, a multiple Grammy award winner who has been hailed as the “pre-eminent guitarist of our time,” next took the stage to perform Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto in D Major (RV 93) transcribed for her instrument.

The Minneapolis-born artist’s lightly amplified guitar rang out over the orchestra during the piece. She imbued all her music with poetic lyricism. A highlight proved to be her ornamentation, as she gracefully embellished her thematic lines with trills and turns.

She broke her own spell with the finale, exuding pure pleasure as she tossed off its dance-like rhythms. Her second performance, Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata in C Major (RV 82), followed the intermission with Miller setting a brisk tempo for the opening Allegro non molto, contrasted by the hushed Larghetto. The Allegro lacked bite, and despite Isbin’s cleanly executed runs that showcased her technical prowess, felt overly genteel.

However, Howard Shore’s Billy’s Theme from 2006 crime film The Departed — for which Isbin performed on its soundtrack — only puzzled. It’s all well and good to offer a more contemporary piece that reflects a broader range, but this mostly ambient soundscape that begins with Isbin plucking strings in her extreme upper range as guest guitarist Greg Lowe provided strumming backup did not do her justice or deliver the kind of razzle-dazzle one might expect with an inaugural appearance.

Its ambiguous ending led to a halting standing ovation. Fortunately, Gerald Barry’s La Jalousie Taciturne helped mitigate any sense of vague unease. This must surely be the most shocking and difficult piece the MCO has performed all season, introduced by Miller as “monstrous” and “musically surreal.”

It proved all that and more as it whipsawed through violent, polytonal Chopin-styled waltzes before tiptoeing through suspenseful pizzicato passages that were then smashed by brutally strident chords. Kudos to the musicians — seen either grinning like mischievous imps or counting like demons — for pulling off this wildly volatile work.

The evening closed with Aaron Kernis’s Musica Celestis, derived from his String Quartet No. 1 (1990). The well-crafted, shimmering work restored calm to the evening; keenly welcomed after being thrust into Barry’s brilliant madhouse.

Winnipeg Free Press, 21 May 2015
Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
Westminster United Church
Tuesday, 19 May 2015
Attendance: 680
4 stars out of 5