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The National Symphony Orchestra had some kind of deal with the devil, it seems, for when their scheduled soloist for this week, guitarist Miloš Karadaglić, dropped out due to a strained hand muscle, they managed to find an even more famous soloist to fill in. Sharon Isbin, about the closest thing we have to a celebrity classical guitarist (press releases passed out at Thursday’s concert touted a documentary about her in which she hobnobs with Joan Baez and Michelle Obama), just happened to be in town, giving a sold-out performance at the Phillips Collection, and she just happened to be available. So the NSO, and everyone who didn’t manage to snag a Phillips ticket, supremely lucked out.
Ibsin performs the centerpiece to this week’s program, Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, a beautiful piece and among the most famous in classical music written for guitar, a remarkable thing given that Rodrigo was not a guitarist. Outside of the classical world, it’s best known for the version of its second movement, which Miles Davis played on his 1960 album Sketches of Spain, a version that Rodrigo reportedly hated.
Which is pretty ungrateful, because Davis certainly introduced it to a much broader audience than Rodrigo could have ever hoped to reach (it appeared in Mad Men), and Rodrigo had no problem cashing the royalty checks that came from it. But Rodrigo is sort of a hard guy to love; he returned to Spain from self-exile after Franco took over, at a time when other artists were going into exile, such as fellow composer Manuel de Falla. A performance of Rodrigo’s concierto came to be the de facto inaugural concert of the new fascist regime and Rodrigo became its darling, and though he didn’t actively court the attention, he didn’t exactly resist it either, swearing a loyalty oath to Franco and subsequently making occasional pro-nationalist statements.
Aside from any unfortunate (and, let’s be generous and say uninvited) fascist associations, the piece as a whole, and that second movement in particular, is haunting and gorgeous. Isbin was excellent, her fingerwork nimble and assured. She took lots of pauses for effect, at times leading to furious strumming for Rodrigo’s blend of flamenco and “Arab” melodies. Ibsin ended with a short, delightfully busy encore, a waltz by Paraguayan composer Augustín Barrios Mangoré.
Ludovic Morlot, an effusive and diminutive French conductor, led the program, which naturally featured a bunch of French composers and ended, appropriately, with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Last week’s program was led by another guest conductor, Donald Runnicles, who is almost certainly in the running for replacing retiring NSO director Christoph Eschenbach. Any visiting guest conductor could in theory be a potential candidate, but I’m guessing Morlot’s appearance was not an audition; his current contract, with the Seattle Symphony ends too late (2019) and his post is too far away for him to likely take over when Eschenbach steps down in 2017.
Morlot’s conducting was uneven; sometimes appearing to call for more aggressive attacks, on Hector Berlioz’s overture to The Judges of the Secret Court, than the orchestra was giving him. It was a kind of weird, haphazard piece meant to evoke dread of secret courts in medieval Germany, and worked best during suspenseful moments of tiptoeing strings anchored by the timpani and bass drum. Better were the two Maurice Ravel pieces, the Pavane for a Dead Princess and Spanish Rhapsody, the first a brief kind of palate cleanser after Rodrigo, the second a sweeping, languid piece with rich colors, more enjoyable than the Berlioz, though the orchestra was less precise here. And Morlot had the most fun with Paul Dukas’s piece best known for the cartoon sequence in Fantasia; one could imagine Morlot wearing Mickey Mouse ears while directing an orchestra of dancing brooms.
It’s a nice program, well worth it for Ibsin and the Rodrigo concerto alone. Even though I prefer the Miles Davis version.
The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $15 – $74.