The Music and Museum program at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art fuses music, art, and lecture with the idea that art informs and reflects other art. By combining these disciplines, the audience will leave with a deeper insight into each art featured. Peter Blanchette, the inventor of the archguitar, performed a pair of recitals of Renaissance, Baroque, and English holiday music at the Bechtler on Tuesday.
The concerts took place in a lovely, sunlit space on the 4th floor of the museum. After three short, pleasant introductions elaborating upcoming cultural events at the museum and in the local community, Blanchette began his noontime program with two dance pieces: Basse Danse, by Pierre Attaignnant (1494-1552), and Zarabanda by Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710). Both were expertly played. The Basse Danse was elegant and lilting, transporting the audience to the Burgundian court where one would have first heard it during the Renaissance. Blanchette used turns, trills, colors, and frills and turned an otherwise simple melody into an incredible example of the intricacies of Baroque ornamentation in Zarabanda by Sanz, one of the most prolific composers for the Baroque guitar. Blanchette then continued on his well-rounded musical journey with two songs by John Dowland (1563-1626), "If my complaints could passions move" and "The lady rich, her Galliard." Both songs were again expertly ornamented and decorated with endless colors and timbres.
At this point in the concert, Blanchette spoke to the audience, breaking the trance and bringing us back to the 21st century. His speaking manner was engaging, and he gave a wonderful history of the lute and archguitar, the instrument that he invented. In his 20's, as a guitarist in conservatory, he fell in love with the sound of the lute, an instrument from the renaissance and baroque time periods, and he was determined to play it. However, the shape of the lute, coupled with other technical difficulties – as Blanchette quipped, "the guitar is to the lute as a tennis racket is to a squash racket" – made it too awkward to play. Blanchette, with the gumption of a 20- year-old, decided to make an instrument that would play like a guitar but sounded like a lute. After studying drawings of guitars and lutes, he came up with the archguitar, a lute-shaped guitar with 11 strings.
His instrument is beautiful, with elegant lines, a work of art in itself, as the Bechtler presenters explained to us in the beginning of the concert. Indeed, as the audience had entered the space, the archguitar was simply displayed on a chair for us to look at and admire.
The concert continued with the Largo from Vivaldi's Guitar Concerto in D Major, RV 93 (1678-1741). Blanchette handled this stunningly beautiful movement with delicate grace. The slow pace was kept with such integrity that I stayed suspended, hardly breathing, not wanting to break Blanchette's musical spell. The last chord floated over the audience and hardly disappeared before he started the next piece, the Courante, from Bach's Cello Suite in D Major, No. 6.
The brilliance of this transition (using an harmonic trick to connect otherwise unrelated music) almost dulled in comparison to the genius of the three movements that followed in the concert. Being a classical violist, I am very familiar with the Bach cello suites, having played and heard them countless times. I don't think I have heard the Courante, Sarabande, and the two Gavottes from the Sixth Suite played any better. The ornamentation and rhythmic intricacies in the Courante were so creative that they gave the impression that Blanchette was composing the music on the spot. Each phrase was a new delight. He highlighted and danced rhythms that I had never heard before in the music. After a short pause wherein Blanchette joked about how hard the Courante is (the entire concert was performed by memory), he continued with the Sarabande, which left me crying and speechless from its serene beauty.
The gavotte movements of the cello suites appear in pairs, Gavotte I and II, and are historically presented with the performer taking all repeats plus a da capo (playing the first gavotte again). The listener therefore has the opportunity (or the obligation, depending on the performer) to hear the same music repeated three times. In regards to Blanchette's performance, I would have hit the repeat button if I could, for his inventiveness was so spectacular in each phrase. I was so thankful that the concert ended with three English carols arranged by Blanchette, as I would not have been able to stand up after the Bach, it left me so moved. "The Apotheosis of the Archguitar" was an apt title for this program. Peter Blanchette's incredible mastery of this music and this beautiful instrument left me wondering if I would ever hear anything so divine again.