For over a year, the joke going around has been that the Porter Center's Scott Concert Hall at Brevard College wasn't big enough to hold all the notes guitarists Eliot Fisk and Paco Peña would play during their Artist Series appearance. It made for good conversation, in part because we experienced a heightened sense of "occasion" that great concerts reflect in the imagination – and it certainly led to some speculation regarding the truth.
Well, of course the Porter Center is still standing, but during intermission on April 6, the near-capacity crowd displayed a mixture of shock and awe, and I know about five rows of patrons who had their hair pinned back by an intimate and sensational display of virtuosity, musicianship, and artistry.
Peña, at age 64 the Spanish patrician flamenco master, with Old World charm, grace, and a legacy of fiery and fluid efficiency, took the stage first. Exuding a sense of calm and dignified decorum, he launched into a tremolo that evolved into a series of trademark rapid scales summoning the Muse and then became fully absorbed by the duende – that state of emotional involvement at a deep level, like a blood spirit. Playing a loosely structured fantasy, he probed every possible emotional and technical edge of the music. And this was the first piece of the night!
Throughout the forty-five minute set, he performed traditional flamenco forms: granaina, alegrias, petenera, and fandango. Of course true flamenco is guitar(s) with a singer, often a tenor, and a dancer, often a female (but can be many, of both genders), and given all the various forms often used, it can have the feel of improvisation. It is music of the folk in rural Spain, and it evokes the image not only of suffering or misfortune, but also of celebration, heavy partying, and a very good time. The concept of solo flamenco guitar in a concert setting was born only in the last century. During one break, Peña spoke in a thick accent yet with elegant command of English, about the influences of the great Sabicas and Ramón Montoya. Both are remembered with reverence for cultivating a wider audience for flamenco music by means of their stunning virtuosity, solo concert tours, and other contributions. We should note that Peña is no slouch in this department either. His landmark Misa Flamenca (Nimbus NI 5288) from 1990 is widely regarded as a paradigm-shifting creation.
At the conclusion of his set, the audience cheered, as they had at the conclusion of each piece, giving him a clear ovation of respect and enthusiasm as Fisk took the stage for his solo set. The American set to work right away with the famous Variations, Op. 9, by Spain's classic-era Fernando Sor, a segue that propelled an already charged atmosphere. The adventurous Fisk is widely regarded as among the top five or six classic-style players worldwide. His numerous recordings clearly indicate a level of musicianship and artistic comprehension beyond simply being... you know, "educated" – and his spectacular technique, born from relentless problem solving, is as inventive and assured as a mature master – which he is, although he hardly looks it. Yet there is no relaxing with Fisk onstage, for in his hands each piece, even one you know quite well, is a journey into new and uncharted territory. It was breathtaking, in many ways, and his performance lent credence to the prospect of finding oxygen vendors in the lobby during intermission.
No! I made up that last part! But his constant pressure on the borders of instrument scope, instrumental technique, and emotional interpretation tend to leave a crowd breathless.
His part of the program stayed in Spain with a short Scene from El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla, leading directly into Joaquin Rodrigo's legendary and prize winning "Invocation et Danse." Here the composer of the Concierto de Aranjuez is writing in homage to Manuel de Falla while summoning images of Debussy. Among composers for guitar, Rodrigo belongs to a class seemingly unaware of – and thus unaffected by – the instrument's technical limitations. Hence his process and works tend to sort out the musicians from the mere players and the virtuosos from the rest. Fisk is very comfortable in these surroundings, and he reduced the front row to tears with harmonics that sounded like distant bells over an evocative bass figure, passionate tension-building tremolos, and harp-like arpeggios, followed by the "polo" dance. This was followed by two guitar chestnuts from the piano works of Albeniz – "Granada," and "Asturias," nos. 1 and 5 from Op. 47. Again, the familiar Spanish images, always reminiscent of the guitar, poured forth with clarity, purpose, and timbral nuance.
Fisk's set concluded with two contrasting pieces. First a lovely adagio titled "Aldo" by Luciano Berio (1925-2003), named for the composer's brother and written as a violin duo. After this brief period of calm, Fisk uncorked Paganini's famous 24th Violin Caprice, the last and perhaps the most famous of the Op. 1 collection. In works like this, Fisk pursues the absolute edge, and there were times when it seemed that he exceeded the instrument's terminal capacity to produce successive notes. He plays with an uncanny accuracy and adventurous abandon, yet he is always in control – regardless of how out-of-control it may seem. Deep within these characteristics is an infectious enthusiasm for playing and for the music, the combination of which produces a spell that one cannot escape.
Keep in mind we've only reached intermission!
The second half was duets loosely based on the idea that Fisk makes Peña accompany classical music – and then the tables are turned. Well, I don't know how daunting a prospect this can be with such accomplished musicians in the house. They played two Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti – K.33 and K.461 – and a Mendelssohn Song without Words (Op. 62, No. 1) where Fisk read a score and Peña accompanied by playing a harmonic realization, occasionally doubling passagework a third above – all with no score! They followed with two great Preludes by J. S. Bach – S.875 and S.927 — performed with wonderful energy.
Then the tables turned. The last two works on the program, both by Peña, were "Farrucas" and "Colombianas." Again, the forms were familiar, but with Fisk reading and Peña performing in comfortable home territory – but the score Fisk was reading had quite a bit of meat to it, and these players simply traded "licks" until the last page ended with a blazing flurry of scales that immediately brought the entire audience to its feet!
In America, the standing ovation takes quite a few forms. Sometimes it is of the mindless obligation type where an audience feels is must stand lest the performer feel offended. In a second type, some audience members rise after some time has passed, indicating that at least some people "get it" – or don't, as the case may be. Then there is the case where the performance is simply so inspirational or the players have given so freely of their art that an audience is immediately propelled to stand in gratitude; and that's what we had this time. The players returned for two flamenco duet encores, and every time they got up, so did 600 other people.
As this program ended we learned that Spain has nominated Fisk to receive the Cruz de Isabel la Catolica* (Cross of Isabel la Catolica) in recognition of his continued advancement of Spanish music. This major international honor will be conferred by the U.S. Spanish Consulate during the Boston Guitar Fest in June. Previous recipients include violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Fisk's mentor and teacher, Andres Segovia.
Our congratulations to Fisk for this tremendous recognition and honor.
So that's about it. You know, just another gig.
*The Cruz de Isabel la Catolica recognizes extraordinary behaviors of civil character from Spanish and foreign people who have distinguished themselves and who have contributed in some way to the progress of the country. It recognizes, too, the manner in which they contribute and the way they have favored excellent relations of friendship and cooperation between Spain and the international community. The medal has 30 crossings bathed in gold, silver, and nickel and represents the forms in which the different cultures have expressed the mystery de la Cruz throughout the centuries.