Guitarist's gifts evident at ASO birthday event


A fact of life in the music world: When you book the "big names," it's "caveat emptor" time - let the buyer beware.

Some come to play. Others have been known to pick up their paycheck and leave the audience wondering what all the fuss was about.

The Annapolis Symphony wished itself a happy 40th birthday Saturday evening by springing for one of those big names, and, happily, the distinguished visitor performed with an involving sense of artistic commitment that left a large Maryland Hall audience feeling fortunate to have heard him.

That soloist was Christopher Parkening, one of our prominent guitarists whose concerts and many recordings on the Angel/EMI label are held in the highest esteem by music lovers around the world.

In tandem with the local orchestra under the baton of conductor Leslie B. Dunner, Parkening gave us everyone's favorite work for the guitar, the "Concierto de Aranjuez," by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, plus a pair of sumptuous encores.

The first was a "Fantasia" of Gaspar Sanz, a Baroque-era composition that became the basis for Rodrigo's other popular concerto, the "Fantasia para un gentilhombre."

The second, a contemporary Turkish work, was a stunning tour de force that sounded like a Bach prelude leavened by a near-Eastern twang.

Technically, Parkening can do anything he wants to on the guitar. But what is most striking about his playing is the sense of high purpose that elevates his dashing runs and kaleidoscopic palette of colors to the realm of transcendent music making. Truly, he is an extraordinary musician who happens to play the guitar.

With one significant exception, he was partnered nimbly by the local orchestra. The flamenco-inspired rhythms of the opening movement emerged energetically, with occasional dashes of Hispanic flair, and there was feistiness aplenty in the concluding "Allegro gentile."

Alas, bumpy, ineptly phrased lines from the English horn failed to establish the haunting atmosphere suggested by the score and wound up mitigating the force of the Adagio at the center of the work. Not until Parkening's supercharged cadenza and the wrenching orchestral effort it inspired did the hypnotic second movement really hit stride.

Joining the English horn glitch was a major meltdown in the clarinet section during the opening to Aaron Copland's "Latin-American Sketches," and an embarrassingly out-of-tune double-bass solo in the penultimate variation of Albert Ginastera's "Varaciones Concertantes."

Far more representative of the excellent results achieved by the orchestra under Dunner's tutelage were the cool but elegant cello lines from principal Fiona Thompson in the "Aria" from Heitor Villa-Lobos' 5th "Bachianas Brasileiras," and the effects achieved by the woodwinds and high strings in the Ginastera "Variaciones." Ole, ASO, and bravo!

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