Guitarist Sharon Isbin Introduces
Mezzo-Soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert

One guitar plus one voice added up to magic on stage at the American Theater in Hampton, Virginia. Sharon Isbin, world class solo guitarist, has played the house several times since it was restored. On this visit on April 29, 2009, she came bringing a youthful, beautiful vocalist - Spanish mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert, born in Girona, Spain into a musical family.

From the opening songs Canciones Españolas Antiguas written by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) and arranged by Ms. Isbin, we were regaled with dramatic, expressive music. Who knew that the famous revolutionary poet Garcia Lorca was also a composer. Over 1200 “artistic” compositions have been based on Garcia Lorca’s poetry but less well-known is his interest in folk music, some that he learned as a child. He was also training in classical piano. He toured with the singer La Argentinita in the early 1930s, playing his arrangements of folk music. He refused to write down his arrangements but he did make a recording in 1931 for the record label His Master’s Voice. It was later transcribed anonymously and published by the Hispania Institute in New York.

We heard Anda, maleo, probably the best remembered and most frequently performed of his songs, followed by Las morillas de Jaén and El Café de Chinitas. With great drama and a wonderful balance of voice and instrument a cocky young woman describes a dialogue of Gypsy bullfighters boasting of their ability and courage. A complete shift of mood to a soothing lullaby in Nana de Sevilla was followed by a fiery performance of Sevillanos del Siglo XVIII, an elegant 18th century dance complete with elegant body and stylized hand gestures by the singer celebrating the long life of the city of Seville.

Ms. Isbin’s first solo set began with Spanish Dance No. 5 by Enrique Granados (1867-1916). The soulful voice of the instrument - rich, deep tones, delicate ones and more strident ones - who knew that there was such a variety of color in that shiny wooden box of an instrument. With a touch so crisp and precise, Ms. Isbin generated enormous energy when she played Zapateado by Regino Sainz de la Marza y Ruiz (1896-1981). We were awe-struck by the subtle shading in the very fast Asturias by Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909) arranged by Segovia. With her eyes closed and totally lost in the experience of creating, Ms. Isbin played hard-strummed sounds and precise picking on the frets as the music spins on and on. It accelerates to a breathtaking tempo and then quietly closes.

Next came two songs that opened my heart: Aranjuez, ma pensée by Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999). The music is the Adagio, second movement of Concierto de Aranjuez. The text is by Rodrigo’s wife who recovered from an illness and in celebration wrote the words. The gentle strumming accompaniment opened my heart. The voice comes, carrying me into deeper feelings. The end is like a goodnight kiss. Adíos by Enrique Madriguera (1904-1973) arranged by Almeida has a bossa nova, cabaret feeling with some superbly sung rich low notes at the end.

After intermission we heard more new art songs: four Canciones sefardíes by Manuel García Morante (b.1937) that gave our performer the opportunity to display her varied expression and emotional depth. Garcia Morante has written over 500 songs, many harmonizations of traditional Spanish folk songs. His mezzo-soprano wife, Myriam Alió, has recorded a CD of Sephardic songs.

In a solo set guitarist Isbin seems to enter a solitary space where she crafts the music that she offers to us as a gift. Capricho Arabe by Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) is lyrical and quiet and was followed by Waltz Op.8, No.4 by Augustin Barrios (1885-1944) who had appeared with her at the American Theater a few years ago. The piece was quiet fireworks - lots of notes and a modern sound.

To finish the recital Ms. Coma-Alabert joined Ms. Isbin to sing Siete Canciones populates Españolas by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) arranged for guitar, which was a natural fit. Ms. Isbin commented “You hear the piano in each song, we stole it” and they did and it was wonderful.

There was an encore and then CD signing of Ms. Isbin’s new CD Journey to the New World in the lobby where we had a long chat with Gemma Coma-Alabert about Spanish repertory and their upcoming performance of this same program at the 92nd Street Y in New York City the following Saturday night.

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