The Midland Symphony and conductor Carlton Woods began their new season with a concert of music "with a Spanish flavor" at the Midland Center for the Arts Saturday night.
The evening began with three dances from Manuel de Falla's "Three Cornered Hat," a richly orchestrated treat that gave several sections of the MSO the chance to shine. From the graceful lilting opening of the Seguidillas, it was clear this was a piece Woods and the orchestra had honed to near perfection, a showpiece for the disciplined and quality playing that are more and more frequently being heard under Woods' tutelage. Typical of the best of the MSO's recent playing was the ebullient third movement Jota, in which they traversed the quickly changing tempi and rhythms with great agility.
Woods next announced a change in the order of the evening's works, bringing next the Ravel Rapsodie espagnole. The "new" order was, in fact, exactly what was printed in the program, which once again raises the question of why performing organizations go to such trouble to produce excellent printed programs but make sure the hall is so dark no one can follow the movements or read more about the works.
Ravel's supreme mastery of orchestration shines in his Spanish Rhapsody, starting with some extremely exposed writing in the first movement Prelude a la nuit. The orchestra's ability to withstand and excel in the scrutiny afford by such transparent orchestration was obvious, and thanks to the superb shell and acoustic system even the very quietest moments were heard all the way to the last row.
Woods promised the audience "exciting moments" in the fourth movement, when all 86 players were called on at once, and the orchestra also never failed to provide them. However, even at this level of staffing, just about the MSO's current max, it was painfully obvious that they were short on string players, a perennial problem for this group.
The first half ended with 67 of the players leaving the stage in a mass exodus, leaving a string ensemble of 19 for Vivaldi's D Major Guitar Concerto, the one piece seemingly not at all related to the night's Spanish theme.
Guitarist Sharon Isbin, the orchestra's guest artist, is known as a renowned pedagogue, humanitarian, and (with her recent Grammy) award-winning recording artist. But those in the classical guitar world have long known what Midland found out Saturday night, and that is that she is a world-class and exquisitely nuanced performer.
The only problem with being a modern classical guitarist is that you are expected to perform in large 1500-seat auditoriums such as the Center for the Arts, on an instrument not in any way capable of producing that much sound. The solution that performers such as Isbin have adopted is to use electronic amplification. The problem is that it sound like they are using electronic amplification.
Especially in the Vivaldi, this solution produced a sound that was quite artificial and loud compared to the "natural" sound of the strings. And since the sound of the guitar was coming from hidden speakers, it was disconcerting to be watching the soloist but hearing her sound coming from entirely different parts of the house.
That having been said, Isbin's performance was beautifully conceived, her playing jewel-like, with Baroque-style ornamentations generally deftly executed. The concerto's famous second movement gave Isbin the chance to display some dreamy and romantic playing that left the audience breathless and musically mesmerized.
Woods kept the strings as silky curtains through which the breeze of the guitar solo wafted, though it was a shame there was not the continuo keyboard that Vivaldi would have expected, which would have provided a contrasting timbre to the strings and guitar.
After intermission Isbin returned for an equally spellbinding performance of Rodrigo's popular Concierto de Aranjeuz. Balance was less of a problem here, as the orchestra was slightly larger, and here also the audience's favorite was clearly the famous second movement, with its marvelous melodies, sensitive lyricism, and wonderful solos for guitar and English horn.
After her standing ovation, Isbin encored with Tarrega's sensuous Recuerdos de la Alhambra, which brought the audience once more to its feet.
The concert ended with Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol, with the orchestra back to its full complement, and hummable melodies abounding. Woods kept the reading tightly focused, through the lush Variazioni, on to the rousing climax of the Fandango asturiano. It was a promising start to the new season.