Owen Moriarty – challenging but rewarding guitar recital

Owen Moriarty solo guitar recital
St. Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series

Carlos Rivera Whirler of the Dance(1970)
Schubert Lob der Thranen arr. Johann Kaspar Mertz (1797-1828)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Nocturnal Op.70
Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) Sonatina Meridional

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 30th October 2013.

This was a rare and welcome opportunity to hear classical guitarist Owen Moriarty in solo performance, as the majority of his Wellington concert appearances are in ensembles. To open the programme he chose two movements from Rivera’s suite Whirler of the Dance. The initial Evocation is a “solemn, personal prayer” (Rivera) whose ambience Moriarty expressed in a reverential and contemplative mood. The following Dance is a complete change, being based on vigorous African dance rhythms, and using tense contrasts between Pizzicato and Ordinario playing. Moriarty did justice to the whole gamut of expression embodied in the two selected movements, but they were not particularly easy listening. Their structure, especially that of the Evocation, was not easy to grasp, and at first listening their wandering tonalities never seemed to be quite adequately established.

The second item was a Schubert song Lob der Thranen (In Praise of Tears) arranged by Mertz, a C19th guitarist and composer.  Its melancholy mood, artistic melodic writing and subtle chromaticism were given a beautifully poetic reading, with a real sense of authenticity. This was enhanced by the smaller period guitar that Moriarty used for this number – apparently a fortuitous discovery in Alistair’s Music in Upper Cuba St!

2013 is the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, and the next item was his Nocturnal Op.70, the only work he wrote for the instrument, and now a bulwark of the classical guitar repertoire. It comprises eight short movements in which Britten uses as the main theme Dowland’s song “Come, heavy Sleep”. Each is a variation which develops a unique character, representing a different phase of sleep. It is a very evocative work which tellingly expresses the elusive and ambiguous sensations of human sleep – the melodies often incomplete, the tonalities barely defined, often with wide contrasts from one mood to the next. This is not a work that the listener can readily “grasp” as a musical experience, and that is doubtless its genius, given the theme and nature of its founding document.

The final work was Manuel Ponce’s Sonatina Meridional, written at the prompting of his friend Andres Segovia. It embodies a variety of Spanish idioms in the composer’s characteristic way, and comprises three movements: Campo (country), Copla (a popular Spanish song) and Fiesta (festival or party). The idioms were a little more accessible and the tonalities more familiar than in the other modern works played earlier: its two outer movements are vigorous and energetic, the central one a gentle contrast, with the character of each being clearly captured in this performance.

Moriarty gave some relaxed and interesting commentary about the works he had chosen, their context and background, and made one particularly interesting observation – that he preferred to avoid playing works that others frequently performed. It’s not hard to see why a creative and innovative musician like Owen Moriarty might feel this way, but the performer is only half the equation in a concert. Particularly in solo recitals, there needs to develop a close rapport between audience and player which is key to an enjoyable musical experience. That can be promoted by apposite commentary, but of equal importance is the programme selection. It is not an accident that even the most avant garde concerts often include at least one familiar and well loved work.

Wellington has enjoyed all too few guitar concerts till recent times, and players like Owen Moriarty and his various ensemble groups have done wonders in redressing the imbalance. But there is still a way to go in attracting a healthy following, and there is no shame in re-playing some of the great classics that most educated listeners would recognize. The aim of music making is surely to broaden the experience of listeners by leading them to discover a new area of musical enjoyment, but I suspect the content of this recital was somewhat uncompromising for many. The classical guitar repertoire is so rich that it deserves wider acceptance, and a little give-and-take in the selection of works can only assist that process.

That said, it was a privilege to be at this recital, and to have one’s mind prised open by the musicianship and technical command that Owen Moriarty brings to all his work. I hope there will be more opportunities in future to hear him in solo mode.

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