Notable Brazilian guitarist presented by the embassy and the NZSM

Aliéskey Vianna (guitar)

Presented by the New Zealand School of Music and the Embassy of Brazil

Massey University Theatrette, Wellington

Thursday 18 October, 6.30pm

The Embassy of Brazil has been hosting regular cultural events for a few years, and these are often of music, featuring Brazilian musicians. We have been aware of them but it has taken us till now to get to attend and to write about them.

The recital by Aliéskey Vianna was particularly drawn to our notice through that excellent daily radio programme, Upbeat, on RNZ Concert at midday. Eva Radich seemed to establish a delightful rapport with him and he proved articulate, indeed remarkably fluent in English, and well-informed and not just about his own instrument, but about music in general – classical, popular, Latin, jazz, anything…

He was born in Brazil’s third largest metropolis, Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais, about 400km north of Rio. He graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The visit was evidently initiated by Dr Jane Curry, head of classical guitar performance at the School of Music, who attended the University of Arizona at Tucson a few years after Vianna had been there and the two had become friends.  The Massey theatrette was almost full when we arrived, of guitar students and members of the Brazilian community and a few other diplomats who, from personal experience, are not in general as interested or as cultivated in the arts as is often imagined. However, some were there, though the majority of the audience judging by the talk during the interval and at the supper later, were from the Brazilian community.

It was a mixture of classical and other music – the ‘other’ being pieces by a couple of famous Brazilian composers.

Inevitably, he began with two pieces by Villa-Lobos – the familiar first Prelude and the less familiar Study No 11.  Suggesting that he was approaching the acoustic diffidently, for a space full of people sounds very different from an empty one during an earlier test-run, his playing in the Prelude was soft, unassuming and discreet, which offered a very attractive view of it; though its middle section took on a more confident character.

I could not discern the particular technical aspects that Estudo 11 might have been been intended to offer work. It began deliberately, soon moving through a series of disparate harmonies, tremolo effects using fast repeated notes, then a theme that seemed derived from chords rather than the other way round: determined by the colour and flavour of the melody.

The next two pieces came from the late and early 18th century: Fernando Sor’s Fantasia Op 18, a prelude and set of variations on a theme by Paisiello. The prelude was a brief affair that seemed to lead without much change of mood into the statement of the theme in question, which was a thoroughly typical, melodious piece from the time of Haydn and Mozart. The composer put it through a conventional routine which offered plenty of opportunity to show the guitar’s lyrical strengths, some of great delicacy, others of fleetness, one using odd muted strings, and one employing only the left hand in both stopping and plucking the strings; it could hardly have been played without a very occasional fluff.

Bach’s Chaconne has, as Vianna remarked, been adapted by a great many musicians for a great many instruments from its original for solo violin. In Vianna’s own arrangement, it seemed particularly well adapted to the guitar, and it emerged from the treatment in an illuminating, tasteful performance.  It was strongly driven by a feeling of forward motion; at the same time the playing conveyed the underlying grief the Bach no doubt felt at the sudden death of his first wife. The last few minutes of the movement in which quite an emotional punch is created, especially in Busoni’s famous piano arrangement, also had a singular impact on the guitar.

The second half began with a couple of improvisations in jazz style, on themes by jazz composer Ralph Towner. Improvisation is a mysterious art, and one hard to judge in the absence of a knowledge of a performer’s entire oeuvre; for there’s always the lurking question, how much is the exercise of a good memory, following sequences that have been thought out in the mind and on your instrument perhaps many times before. The old game of improvising on a theme offered by audience members provides a more transparent test, though even here, well-practised passages, decorative effects, chord sequences that lie readily to the hands of the improviser but are unfamiliar to an audience, make it a problematic process. All one can say is that Vianna displayed most impressive fluency and versatility, commanded easy-sounding harmonic changes, a wonderful range of ornaments and fleet passage-work. And the two pieces, Toledo and The Juggler’s Etude, seemed to evolve in an organic manner, enabling you to gauge where the playing was heading and how far off was its conclusion.

Vanna told us that Anibal Augusto Sardinha, better known as ‘Garôto’ (his nick-name sounds menacing, but means ‘The Boy’) had emerged from the streets of São Paulo where he was born in 1915, playing the banjo, in popular music, especially the samba. After he went to Rio de Janeiro in 1938 he soon met Laurinda Almeida and Carmen Miranda who took him to the United States with her. His music turned towards jazz and Duke Ellington and Art Tatum were among those in his concerts; but the sounds of the bossa nova are not too remote.  He died in 1955.

His Inspiracão seemed like an exercise in slithering chord changes below scraps of charming if slightly sentimental melody; while Lamentos do morro expressed its lament in hard chords and plucking that would approximate staccato playing on other instruments, in very lively, extravert bossa nova rhythm.

Sergio Assad (presumably no relation), born in 1952, is an important Brazilian composer/guitarist, famous in a duo with his brother Odair. You will find a formidable list of his compositions in Wikipedia.

His three movement suite, Aquarelle, opened with Divertimento where a partly obscured theme was underpinned by bossa nova rhythms and a dazzling array of notes that suggested a fastidious musical personality. Valseana was what its name suggested, as disguised and subverted as Ravel’s orchestral essay, was adorned by decorative flourishes and arpeggio flights. The closing Prelúdio é Toccatina somewhat mirrored the Sor Fantasie, with its short Prelude forsaking Brazil for the sobriety of Bach, while the Toccata handled its material as any devoted disciple of Villa-Lobos would have learned to do through the example of the sequence of the Bachianas Brasileiras.

Apart from the exemplary, if not utterly flawless, performances, there were Vianna’s well-chosen and intelligently expressed remarks about the composers and the pieces, touching on the influences that contributed to their style and handling. The rather slight programme notes and spoken remarks that have often accompanied other guitar recitals has been a matter that I have previously had the effrontery to lament. Here was an example of a performer presuming no less musical background that would a pianist talking to an audience that was about to hear Bach or Liszt or a string quartet on Haydn or Beethoven