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Why is Andrew Spencer smiling?

Lansing Symphony, Sharon Isbin serve up smashing night of Latin music

Andrew Spencer was smiling so much it must have hurt his face Saturday night. Don’t think we didn’t notice.

Spencer, the timpani man at the back of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, put the thunder under a spectacular concert of Spanish and Latin-American music.

From the freshness of the music to the precision and power of the orchestra to the soulful guitar artistry of guest soloist Sharon Isbin, Saturday’s tour de force ranks among the most memorable nights in music director Timothy Muffitt’s tenure.

I can’t recall a concert where the orchestra sounded more luscious and huge, more locked in to one another and more engaged with the audience.

The unusual choice of music was key. A mingled tingle of discovery and familiarity, comfort and shock, ran through the entire evening, as the orchestra rampaged through several works by Spanish and Latin composers.

The immediate cause of Spencer’s grin was the pummeling he and the brass section administered to the audience in the third part of “Estancia,” a rollicking cowboy ballet by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera.

The suite began with a relentless four-note whacking, as if somebody tied Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to a horse and sent it galloping through the dust until there was nothing left of Ludwig but a bloody skeleton of rhythm.

Ginastera’s ballet, set on a ranch, sounded at times like an Andes inversion of Aaron Copland, but there were surprises along the trail. The second dance began with a dainty flute and piano duet suggesting that the gauchos had stopped in a gulch for cocktails, with a candelabra balanced on a boulder. The third dance is a juggernaut fanfare for timpani and brass that turned geniallooking Spencer into the prince of darkness for five glorious minutes. It was over much too soon, but the consolation was an even more energetic finale, with three or four rhythms pounding along the plains at once. The sheer verve of the music brought out Muffitt’s inner Leonard Bernstein, which isn’t that far from the surface anyway. A rare mid-concert standing ovation did little to dim Spencer's smile.

Two even more extroverted rousers bracketed the evening. Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña” skirted the shoals of schmaltz at maximum volume to open the night. “Dánzon No. 2,” by Mexican-born, L.A.-based composer Arturo Márquez, dropped the curtain with a movie-ish dose of post-modern razzle-dazzle.

But the meat of the evening was in the middle.

“Sinfonía India,” by Mexican composer Carlos Chávez, opened with a bustling outburst of tropical colors, enriched by a battery of four percussionists and piccolo trills from the high branches. A folksy, hymn-like middle section, with a plainspoken grandeur and ambling pace, drew itself up into a stern, urgent statement from the strings — a progression straight from the playbook of Copland, a close friend of the composer.

The evening wasn’t all thunder and flash. “Fuentes” (“Fountains”) by Alfonso Tenreiro quietly diffused into the hall like a sunrise. The music’s fragile mood depended on the fine-grained consistency of long tones in the string section, drifting like layers of orange haze in the pre-dawn light. A melancholy dialogue between principal trumpeter Rich Illman and principal oboist Jan Eberle threaded through the subtle orchestral washes. Illman nailed several key moments Saturday night — Latin music is perfectly suited to his extroverted, big sound.

For a bonus, the Venezuelan-born composer flew to Lansing from Utah to hear the concert. It was fun to see Tenreiro looking so happy after the performance, applauding from his seat with hands held high.

The centerpiece of the night was the famous Concierto de Aranjuez by Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, with no less a soloist than Sharon Isbin, arguably the world’s foremost classical guitarist.

The pairing produced one of the orchestra’s most spellbinding concerto performances in recent memory. Sonic balance, a tricky matter with a classical guitar, was never an issue.

The performance started with technical mastery and quickly rose to the level of a spiritual experience. The music was charged with a feeling of tension that ran deeper than the expected give-and-take between guitar and orchestra. The dark duality of Isbin’s isolation, especially in the heart-rending slow movement, and her deep communion with the sounds around her took on an existential undertow. For all its exotic atmosphere, the music is animated by subterranean, throbbing pulsations carried in turn by the orchestra and guitar, seamlessly transferred between Isbin and the orchestra to shattering effect under the surface play of melody and color.

After Isbin played her sorrow to the limit in the dissonant pangs of the slow movement’s solo cadenza, the full orchestra slammed out the famous theme like a coffin closing, leaving all forces to deal with mortality as best they could. This being Spain, the consolation took the form of a spirited dance, with plenty of nimble give and take between soloist and orchestra.

Isbin stuck around to play a spellbinding solo encore, Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra.” The orchestra sat quietly. Muffitt went to the back of the stage and chilled out in a chair, next to a gong. The hall fell into a hush as Isbin sent jittery, mandolin-like ripples over a drifting bass line, releasing a languid melody into the air to circle over it all like a homesick bird. Seems to me it would have been an easier job for three people, but Isbin has a surgeon’s concentration, a rocket scientist’s skills and a troubadour’s heart.


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