Engaging guitar performances from mainly junior NZSM students

New Zealand School of Music Classical Guitar Concert

Music by Stephen Goss, Fernando Sor, Astor Piazzolla, Sylvius Leopold Weissm Carlo Domeniconi,  Julián Arcas, Jorge Cardoso

Old Saint Paul’s

Tuesday 17 September, 12:15 pm

This concert was one of a series presented in collaboration with the New Zealand School of Music, to give students opportunities to perform before an audience other than fellow students and teachers. All but one of the players were first or second year students. What impressed here was not, perhaps, impeccable playing or mature insight into the music, but an ability to find their way through music that was often complex and sophisticated. The music was introduced by Jane Curry, lecturer and head of classical guitar studies at the school.

The concert opened with a quartet consisting of Jake Church, Cormac Harrington, Emmett Sweet and Cameron Sloan playing three pieces from a five-movement ‘re-working’ of familiar pieces by Erik Satie, from the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes. The latter word may derive from an early Greek religious belief, gnosticism, while it has also been linked with the myth based in the ancient Cretan city of Knossos, of King Minor, the story of the Minotaur involving Ariadne and Theseus. Satie’s intended meaning or connotation remins obscure.

The same applies to ‘Gymnopédies’, which hints at gymnastics, or dance (gymnos means ‘nude’ in Greek, since in Sparta, at least, gymnastics were performed naked; while paedia, or ‘pedia’, means boys). So both words have a classical association with movement or dance, and have in common the rejection of late 19th century salon music; they are, in Wikipedia‘s words, “gentle yet somewhat eccentric pieces which, when composed, defied the classical tradition”.

These arrangements were certainly taxing, not only in the finding and maintaining of good ensemble, but also in expressing a gentle melancholy through enigmatic dissonances and unusual harmony.  In their original versions, or in Debussy’s orchestration of the Gymnopédies, they have become extremely popular.

These re-workings proceed without breaks, offering the kind of contrast that Satie was, clearly, not seeking to make, as both groups of three have a striking unity of tone, harmony, tempo. The stronger tune of the Gymnopédie set betwen the two Gnossiennes changed the character of the pieces.

But the players did not quite achieve the fluidity and the disembodied feeling that is the character of the originals.

Sor’s Sonata, Op 22, a piece that probably owed someting of its shape to Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, was played by George Wills. I suppose because he only had his own instrument to attend to, he produced a more fluent line, in handling the tricky rhythms, than the quartet had in the Satie pieces; the perfectly understandable slips and a certain hesitancy, however, did not detract from his general grasp of the style.

The first of a couple of South American pieces was Verano Porteno by Piazzolla. First year student Dylan Solomon’s approach to the elusive tango rhythm was cautious, quiet and a bit tentative. Playing from memory as did all the solo players; after a couple of minutes he handled capably, a change of tempo and  mood.  The music returns to its quiet opening phase, brushing strings with the finger tips, slowly gaining momentum towards the end. A charmingly played piece.

Royden Smith, another first year, played a Passacaglia by the famous lutanist, and contemporary of J S Bach, Sylvius Leopold Weiss. He captured the music’s melancholy tone as well as exhibiting considerable feeling for its rhythm and for the baroque style which would have been derived from some understanding (I suppose) of the nature of lute performance.

Carlo Domeniconi is a contemporary Italian composer who has written much for the guitar. Jake Church played his Variations on an Anatolian Folksong. Its opening was a little insecure, for its texture and rhythm were complex, calling for a fluency that might hardly be expected in a second year student. There were five variations in which Church managed to exhibit changes of character, though in truth, they did not quite compensate a certain monotony that the unchanging tonality and dynamics induced. It sounded particularly hard, in the third variation, to bring melody and rhythm into a synthesis. And in the last variation, I had the not uncommon experience of feeling lost for a moment, and then found, in time for a nice ending.

Then came a Fanasy on Themes from La traviata by 19th century Spanish composer Julián Arcas. Cristian Huenuqueo tended to exaggerate he exprssive features to begin with and I did have misgivings about the likely success in adapting vocal  music of this kind for such a very different vehicle. Whether his playing slowly became more persuasive or my sensors were becoming acclimatised, the several tunes took on something of their character in the opera. It seemed a technically demanding piece and, allowing for occasional smudges, this 4th year student negotiated its changes, its lyrical character, verfy effectively.

The last piece was a suite of five pieces by Jorge Cardoso, a contemporary Argentinian guitarist and composer, and played by a trio of Jamie Garrick, Huenuqueo and Wills. They were derived from the folk styles of various South American countries, entitled as follows: Samba d’orou, Camino de chacarera, Polca paraguaya, Zamba de plata and Vals Peruano.

While Samba d’ouro was a gently syncopated piece in which the trio created a rather sweet atmosphere, Camino de chacarera which is a rural counterpart of the cosmopolitan Argentinian imagery of the tango, but was without the brittle sensuality of the tango proper. Ensemble here proved a little elusive.

Polca Paraguaya was a considerable challenge though the ensemble seemed to gather itself up as it progressed, with a treble line carrying well. Zamba de plata alternated between 6/8 and 3/4 rhythm, sounding a little like a waltz, with competing rhythms, that caused momentary slips; but a charming piece.  The audience clapped at this point, thinking, because the way the programme notes were set out, that it was the end.

Vals Peruano had me fooled as it didn’t sound much like a waltz; Jamie Garrick later clarified the order of the pieces for me, pointing out that this last piece ‘uses syncopated, dotted rhythms which really muddy the feel’. The rhythms were curious and ever-changing.

The music was not chosen for its simplicity or audience familiarity, yet the players, most of whom were at the early stages of their studies, coped well enough technically, but more importantly, found the appropriate idiomatic style, from both a period and geographical point of view.


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