Beacon Series / Shibe

Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

There’s no mistaking the boldness with which Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre opened its first classical music series. Anyone expecting world-ranking guitarist Sean Shibe to settle for a populist solo recital of, say, Spanish-style lollipops, Bach transcriptions or Elizabethan airs will have misread Shibe’s fearless evangelism, which placed a major modernist Picasso-inspired work, Harrison Birtwistle’s Beyond the White Hand, at the heart of his hour-plus afternoon programme. 

He acknowledged series curator James Waters’ willingness to go for it, proving in his intense and at times edge-of-the-seat performance that it simply takes a master craftsman to make sense of the seemingly impenetrable. The Beacon’s informal performance space, its floor-to-ceiling window views over a windswept River Clyde changing hue by the minute, seemed remarkably suited to Birtwistle’s angular and experimental virtuosity, his fragmented, to some extent heretical, rhetoric.

The rest of Shibe’s programme was easier to instantly digest. He opened with a pair of works by the 16th century Spanish vihuelist Luis de Narváez, their nimble eloquence like stage whispers enticing us into an intimate world. The accompaniment of trickling rainwater from the roof space above seemed strangely appropriate, like some Zen water feature.

Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy (a habanera drawing on quotes from Debussy), even with its uptempo vibe, maintained that sense of reverie, as did Poulenc’s short, serene Sarabande. 

It was only after the ensuing Birtwistle that Shibe injected a more direct sunlight into his programme, firstly in the soulful radiance of Agustin Barrios Mangoré’s Julia Florida (a point, coincidentally, where the clouds lifted over the Clyde to reveal distant Helensburgh), then in five of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 12 Guitar Etudes, sprayed with splashes of South American effervescence, and finally in Alberto Ginastera’s catchy Sonata. 

The last – dexterous, multi-coloured and exciting – seemed like a microcosmic précis of the entire recital: the internalised austerity of the opening Escordia giving way to a breezy, sometimes weirdly experimental, Scherzo; and after the searching restfulness of Canto, the manic motor-driven Finale.

Shibe attracted a healthy audience for this inaugural concert. Sitting near the back, however, it was difficult to pick out some of the finest details of his playing. Given the flexibility of the room, there is surely scope to try out different audience layouts, especially when such intimate solo instruments are featured. 

(Photo: Christopher Bowen)

Ken Walton

The Beacon’s first Classical Series continues with the Malamatina Guitar Quartet (26 Feb), saxophonist Dean Walker Garrity (March), accordionist Ryan Corbett (April) and ends in June with harpsichordist John Butt performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Details at