For savvy shoppers there's nothing quite as satisfying as a BOGO (Buy One Get One) deal. While not unusual in the grocery aisles, it is a rare occurrence when you get to see/hear two of the greatest players of an instrument (although different styles) in one concert. When the Duke Performances 2013-14 line-up was announced last August, if you looked to the end of the season, the pairing of Eliot Fisk and Paco Peña jumped out as a not-to-be-missed feast for guitarists.
Although this would have been a perfect concert for the now acoustically pristine Baldwin Auditorium – and quite likely would have worked just fine without amplification – this was one of the few concerts this season to take place at Reynolds Auditorium. There was an unobtrusive low-lying microphone for each artist and the sound engineers did a marvelous job of producing a natural, non-electric sound that simply sounded louder than the guitar(s) would have sounded un-amplified.
This was a concert pairing two of the greatest living guitarists: Eliot Fisk, classical, and Paco Peña, flamenco. So first thing is, just what is the difference between the two? The flamenco guitar itself, in general, is a bit lighter, with a thinner top and, usually, a tap plate (golpeador), although Peña's guitar did not. The traditional use of wooden pegs, like bowed string instruments, now seems to be the exception rather than the rule. It is more the music played, and the highly complex and evolved right-hand technique of flamenco players, that sets it apart from traditional classical guitar.
In the first half we got to hear each artist individually – the differences in technique as well as the shared musical influences. Peña grew up in the Andalusia region of southern Spain, said to be the birthplace of the flamenco culture. Inextricably linked to this culture, traditionally, the guitarist was merely the accompanist to dancers and/or singers. Eventually, the guitarist stepped out as a virtuoso presence on his own, and Peña is probably the greatest living practitioner. He started out with a rather slow fandango that, unlike most dances of this type, has a rather undefined rhythm. This and the following piece had Peña in a rather subdued mode, and the high energy rasguedos (right-hand strumming) had to wait for the encore. Peña gave a rather lengthy talk about flamenco and also dedicated the last piece of his solo set to the memory of the recently deceased Paco de Lucía.
Fisk was up next, and his performance was a perfect example of both his undeniable strengths and weaknesses. He emerged in the early 1970s as a tremendously exciting and terrifyingly technically prodigious player who had mortal guitarists slack jawed in amazement and envy. But he would also ratchet up speeds (unnecessarily) above even what he could handle. The result was phrases being sped through, many missed notes, and, well, just plain sloppy playing. He began with Manuel de Falla's "Hommage à Debussy," in which what should have been ethereal and dreamlike was muscular and aggressive. Joaquin Turnina's "Soleares" was a convincing reading of a favorite of classical players that could best be described as "flamenco lite." Two of Isaac Albéniz's great original works for piano, "Granada" and "Cordoba," were played with great technical bravura but suffered from excessive speed being given importance over beautiful harmonies. Usually saved as an encore, the audacious transcription (by Fisk) of the well-known 24th caprice for unaccompanied violin by Paganini also could have used a lighter metronome setting; it came across as quite impressive but frenetic and uneven.
The second half paired the two in sets that featured classical duets first, followed by flamenco duos. While Fisk read his parts from music that extended far out from his stand, Peña played entirely from memory. Based on Fisk's prolific history of transcriptions, I suspect that he was the transcriber of the classical duets, none of which were originally for guitar. Domenico Scarlatti's nearly 600 keyboard sonatas are a favorite of guitarists and a nearly endless reservoir for transcriptions, most of which work quite well on their new instrument. The two played on this occasion (K.33 and K.461) were, refreshingly, relatively obscure and a delight to hear. In these and two works by J.S. Bach, the arrangements tended to give the meatier part to Fisk, and in addition Peña 's guitar also did not project as well as it did in his solo set. The only "solo" part given to Peña in the duet set was the melody in Mendelssohn's Song Without Words, Op. 62, No. 1. Like an excellent classical artist given a written-out jazz "improvisation" to play, Peña played it well, but it just seemed a bit strained and pedantic.
The flamenco duets were the highlights of the evening. The two scheduled works, "Farrucas" and "Columbianas" (both arranged by Peña), were wonderful slow burners that had all the elements of the flamenco duende and had both performers clearly relishing the music and their friendship. But it wasn't until the encore that the full strength of the passion of flamenco emerged. Peña played a series of blistering scales and remarkable rasguedos that made his right hand a blur of rhythmic energy. It brought the audience to its feet as if they had ejectors in their seats. It almost seemed like a cruel tease to end on such a high note.