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The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ) has had a long and distinguished 27-year career that has spanned many musical genres and trends. Unfortunately, there were periods where industry demands seemed to dictate some unwise recordings and repertoire. Of course, their musicianship never suffered, but it was very gratifying to hear these four superb guitarists play a recital that, at least in some respects, harkens back to great guitar and musical traditions. The concert this evening, presented by North Carolina State University Center Stage at Stewart Theater, was quite special in several respects. This was the final concert of a tour that brought the LAGQ together with the fabulous Brazilian singer Luciana Souza. It was also a chance to hear their newest guitarist, Matthew Greif, the replacement of longtime member Andrew York, who left amicably to pursue other projects and interests.
Upon hearing that Souza would be touring with the LAGQ, I recalled the exquisite concert she gave at UNC Chapel Hill several years back, accompanied by the lone, outstanding guitarist Romero Lubambo. Surely, I thought, four guitars plus Souza would be exponentially better, but interestingly, it was the selections she sang accompanied by only a single guitarist that were the most satisfying, musically. The evening was a very full and generous helping of Latin/Spanish selections, most of them Brazilian.
The quintet began with a work by Hermeto Pascoal, a relative of the singer who is referred to as the "Frank Zappa of Brazil." The music was infectious, but, given the rapid-fire Portugese lyrics, it was impossible to hear the Zappa influence. You cannot even think about contemporary Brazilian music without the name of Antonio Carlos Jobim. We got to hear Greif as soloist when he accompanied Souza in "Triste," one of Jobim's earliest and most hauntingly beautiful songs. Greif played the complex rhythms with effortless grace and an unforced swing, and Souza sang with that lovely voice that oozes sensuality. We continued our solo guitarist musical chairs as Scott Tennant took over for two selections from Manuel de Falla's Seven Popular Spanish Songs for guitar and voice.
The bulk of the first half consisted of nine selections from Falla's famous ballet El Amor Brujo. Sections of this have been a favorite of the LAGQ since their inception, but it is rare to get such an extended performance, especially with a singer. However, I sensed some fatigue setting in (this was their fifth one-night stand in a row), and the energy and passion just weren't there. That said, however, great artists such as these, working with such great music, were able to give performances that delighted.
Now a word about what was a deplorable technical problem that went on for the entire evening. There was a very loud and continuous electronic hum that visibly affected both performers and audience. This is inexcusable for an intimate concert such as this, especially since I saw no evidence of any attempts to correct it during intermission.
The five performers came out rested and with renewed vigor, at least in part because they were genuinely emotional over this being their final performance together. The finale included the ethereal "Lua Descolorida" by Osvaldo Golijov, arranged and played by William Kanengiser. John Dearman was the final at-bat as he and Souza playfully romped through a medley of Brazilian tunes based on the baiao rhythm. Souza also gave a solo performance of a Sonnet by poet Pablo Neruda, for which she accompanied herself on the African mbira, also known as a thumb piano.
The best was indeed saved for last as all four players returned for a masterful medley of Jobim songs arranged for the LAGQ and Souza by Sergio Assad. This remarkable arrangement and the authentic and virtuosic yet relaxed performance by these five musicians served as a reminder of the visceral impact this music first had on North America. Fortunately this and other selections heard tonight will be on an upcoming CD by the LAGQ and Souza that will feature Brazilian music.