Acclaimed Guitarist Recital highlights venue shortcomings

New Zealand School of Music presents:

Matt Withers – Australian guitarist

F.Tarrega – Recuedos de la Alhambra
I.Albeniz – Asturias
Blue Moon & Somewhere over the Rainbow
La Catedral – A.Barrios
Black Wattle Caprices – R.Edwards
Usher Waltz – N.Koshkin
Libre Tango, Verano Porteno, La Muerte Del Angel – A.Piazzolla
Three Irish Folk-Songs
Cuban Dance – J.Pernambuco

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Victoria University

Friday 20th March, 2015

Matt Withers is head of Guitar at the University of Canberra and a widely acclaimed performer who has picked up many awards in his relatively short career. He is currently touring New Zealand for the first time doing recitals and master classes, and this was a welcome opportunity to hear someone of this calibre whose reputation has gone before them.

He described his varied programme as “a round-the-world tour”, and it opened appropriately with two well loved Spanish classics from Tarrega and Albeniz. He immediately put his own stamp on these familiar works by an amazingly delicate touch and sensitivity of interpretation, calling frequently on rubato and the power of the pregnant pause before resolving a phrase or section. He marked Tarrega’s move from minor to major mode with a very creative brightening that highlighted the shift most effectively. These were both very romantic readings, quite devoid of any Iberian brashness.

So too were Almeida’s two settings of Blue Moon and Rainbow – delicate, laid back, almost hinting at the louche, caressing every single note. My heart leapt with joy to see Barrios’ La Catedral on the programme – one of my favourite pieces –     and it too was presented with great tenderness and lightness of touch.

The Black Wattle Caprices by Australian composer Edwards (who apparently lives in Black Wattle Bay in Sydney) were indeed capricious, leaping from one idea to another with, to my ear, no clear idea of a destination or overarching concept. But Withers is a strong supporter of Australian composers, and he clearly engaged with these works, playing them with very obvious enthusiasm.

Throughout the first half, however, I had been disappointed, and frankly baffled, by the apparent shortcomings of Matt Withers’ technique. In many pianissimo passages there had been missing notes, or even clusters of notes entirely missing, and phrases that he was not able to project even to where I was sitting only 3-4 metres distant. This despite his modern lattice-built instrument which provides greater projection than traditional designs.

It was very odd, and could hardly be attributed to nerves in so experienced a recitalist. Something was clearly not right, but it was not until a brief conversation I had in the interval that the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place. I had been listening to an artist who was, literally, not warmed up. While I sat comfortably in the room in a winter jersey, scarf and jacket on this southerly Wellington night, the conditions played havoc with the performance. There are two basic requirements for a successful technical performance: a relatively high radiant temperature for the hands (essential for high speed dexterity), and a lowish air temperature (for keeping a clear head and sharp concentration). If the air temperature is raised to a level sufficient for high speed dexterity, concentration is seriously impaired. Likewise a low air temperature makes that same dexterity physiologically impossible.

At the time the Victoria School of Music was designed in the 1980s, these parameters were clearly presented to the authorities. They were at that time the Ministry of Works, who oversaw all design, construction, and funding approvals for universities. The architects proposed wall mounted radiators, which had a long history of meeting the required parameters for optimum musical performance. This proposal was completely at odds with current government policy which was to use gas (usually air) heating, but the evidence was sufficiently compelling to convince the ministry, and an exception was allowed.

This system has since been removed from the Adam Concert Room, depriving players of the most basic environmental conditions for a competent performance. I now realised that what I had observed in the first half of the programme was the classic situation of a player who was too cold. By the last pair of items things were improving, and they continued to come right throughout the second half. This is such a familiar situation (ask anyone who has played, shivering, in provincial wooden churches for the local music society!) that the penny should have dropped sooner. The other serious difficulty with cold venues is that they do not address the fundamental physics of musical instruments, which must be sufficiently warm to speak properly and in tune.

The second half of the programme opened with Koshkin’s Waltz, which expresses the chaotic torrent of fearful and anxious thoughts besieging the unfortunate Usher of Edgar Alan Poe’s story. The interlude of lightning and thunder came across with power and urgency, before the beautifully crafted and poignant collapse into final silence as Usher’s house disappeared into the enveloping marsh.

The Piazzolla bracket comprised a very attractive group of pieces where Withers captured the contrasting moods with delightful whimsy, be they lively, or gently evocative and reminiscent. Likewise the Irish songs, very simply and effectively set by British guitarist Steve Marsh, were beautifully rendered, full of longing, and played with great affection.

With Pernambuco’s energetic Cuban Dance, Matt Withers offered a vigorous and enthusiastic finale to a very interesting and varied programme. The audience were most appreciative, and they were rewarded by a lovely rendering of Stanley Meyers’ wistful Cavatina as an encore.

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