NZSM Classical Guitar students square up to a challenging recital

New Zealand School of Music presents:
NZSM Classical Guitar Students

Lunchtime Concert Series
Old St.Paul’s, Wellington.

 Tuesday September 23rd, 2014

This brief concert was a welcome opportunity to hear again the talents of the NZSM Classical Guitar students under the tutelage of director Dr. Jane Curry. The full ensemble consisted of fifteen players, of whom four were guest members from the School’s pre-tertiary programme. The recital comprised a wide variety of works that spanned the “Golden Age” of Elizabethan lute music, the Baroque, and the 19th and 20th centuries.

The initial work, for full ensemble, was Three Distractions by Richard Charlton (b.1955). The first two short numbers involved lots of complex, irregular and syncopated rhythms, while the third was  marked by angular atonal writing with many percussive effects. It was a challenging piece, where the complexities were well handled and the integration of the large ensemble was excellent.

Then followed two duo numbers, firstly The Flatt Pavan and Galliard by John Johnson (1550-1594) who was one of the fathers of the “Golden Age” of English lute music. The characteristic graceful Elizabethan writing was well balanced by George Wills and Jake Church, with musical phrasing and good dynamic variation. The following Jongo for Two Guitars (1989) by Brazilian composer Paulo Bellinati was a total contrast where rhythmic complexities and clever percussive effects were also very effectively realized.

The bracket was completed by a duo version of Manuel da Falla’s unmistakable Spanish Dance which was given a very competent reading, though the quietest dynamics tended to disappear in the church’s acoustic, and some slightly untidy passagework popped up occasionally between the two players.

The next bracket comprised works for guitar quartet, with players Royden Smith, Dylan Solomon, Amber Madriaga and Christopher Beernink. The first work was Toccata by Leo Brouwer (b.1939), a Cuban player-composer who often combines “traditional forms with energetic, rhythmic flare resembling Cuban folk and street music. Brower’s compositional style is unique, consisting of a multitude of different sounds, techniques and cultures.” (programme notes). The Toccata was certainly busy with all of these, yet it somehow failed to grasp me in an integrated experience  that engaged the ear and led one on a musical journey. Its technical challenges were certainly met head on by the quartet, but some essential dimension seemed to have eluded the composer’s pen.

The next work was a transcription for guitar quartet of the opening sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata BWV 29 Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir. Bach himself wrote three versions of this movement – the first for solo violin (in BVW 1006), then the cantata sinfonia scored for orchestra, and finally a transcription for solo lute (BVW 1006a). I have not heard this last, but I felt that this guitar version was simply not able to do justice to the wonderful contrapuntal writing. Its very life blood derives from the gutsy, incisive attack and timbre offered by bow, reed or trumpet, and the guitar can simply not produce this.

There may well be merit in pedagogic versions that test the technical capacities of players (which were very adequately demonstrated here), but it does not sit comfortably in a concert programme. However, this particular recital was serving as an assessed element of the university course, so the parameters are somewhat different.

Spin by Andrew York (b.1958) was next on the programme. It was a work that challenged the players with tricky rhythms shifting between 7/8, 3/4 and 4/4, and with complex busy writing, all of which they handled with technical aplomb. I felt however that the intricacies of Spin would have been given greater shape and meaning by a wider dynamic range and more thoughtful phrasing.

The final work in the programme was Folguedo by Afro-Brazilian guitarist/composer Celso Machado (b.1953). Scored for guitar orchestra, it was billed as “a gem of a piece [in] the canon of large guitar ensemble repertoire”. It proved to be just that: the first of the two movements was immediately attractive, featuring a guitar solo introduction which then blossomed into ensemble writing that was presented with pleasing balance and dynamics. The second movement involved a considerable complexity of rhythms, textures, interweaving lines and harmonies, which were all handled pretty competently. Once again I felt that the challenge of the technical demands tended to be uppermost in the performers’ minds, whereas a greater exploration of the dynamic possibilities would have considerably enriched the music.

But having said that, the work was presented with a verve and enthusiasm that was shared by all the ensembles heard in this recital, a feature which has marked all the concerts I have heard from this tertiary programme. The Old St. Paul’s venue offered a very suitable acoustic and ambience which further enhanced the privilege Wellington audiences enjoy from hearing the fruits of this excellent NZSM endeavour.




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