Recital Review



Appalachian Guitar Fest Saturday Night: Steven Walter and Michael Nicolella

April 8, 2006 - Boone, NC:


The second concert of ASU's GuitarFest weekend, presented April 8 in Broyhill Recital Hall, featured a broad range of repertoire that included unusual art statements for the guitar, and more samples of high scholarship. Steven Walter, Professor of Guitar at Furman University, took the stage for his segment bearing a guitar he made himself. Yes, in his "spare time" he is a guitar maker – more about that in a minute.

His program began with Saudade No. 3 by French guitarist and composer Roland Dyens (b.1955). This work has three through-composed movements – "Rituel," "Danse," and "Fête et Final" – and the music falls somewhere between rhythmically confused Stravinsky and three jazz guys smoking suspect tobacco at a sidewalk café. On one hand the music is light, jazzy, bluesy, and a perfect concert opener to invite the listener to relax. On the other hand, the harmonies often challenge the ear, and the rhythms come in quick cells offering an interesting, yet often unrelated, transition to the next thing.

Walter followed with his own transcription of Mozart's famous Fantasie in D minor, K.397, for piano. Usually big piano works don't fit well on the guitar, due to limited range of three octaves and a fifth. However, he made this one look easy, as though the piece had been made for such a transition, and all the familiar "leanings" and suspensions came forth with great confidence.

The centerpiece of this program came next with the "Nocturnal," Op. 70, of Benjamin Britten. One of the earliest "modern" works for solo guitar and inspired by the persistence of Julian Bream in 1963, it is a unique set of eight variations after John Dowland's "Come Heavy Sleep" from the First Book of Songs or Ayres (1597). It's worth noting that this piece declares the central theme at the end of the work. The movements progress through program or form titles, and the musical language, vintage Britten, doesn't approach conventional harmony until the concluding movement of the Dowland song. Walter presented a clear understanding of the complex relationship of each variation to the theme and dispatched the technical demands with ease. As such he showed himself as a consummate musician, a virtuoso with thoughtful presentation and seemingly effortless technique.

His program concluded with two evergreen romantic waltzes by the great 19th-century Paraguayan guitarist/composer Agustín Barrios Mangoré. The Valses, Op. 8/3 and 4, have fantastic melodies and conventional forms that include virtuoso flourishes that reach out to all ears in the same inviting way. Walter delivered these works with a cool intellectual approach and glossy technique balancing just the right amount of flash and speed with rubato and expressive nuance.

Walter built his instrument! No, really (and he has two children under age 4!). It is one of over a hundred in his career. The one he played was built in 2001, and it filled the hall with rich and vibrant sound – as though it is part of the room instead something up on the stage. For his encore, he chose Sergio Assad's technically thorny "Valseana," providing a classy, soothing and lyrical end to his brilliant set.


After intermission, Seattle's Michael Nicolella took the stage and immediately launched into his own Toccata and Fugue written in 2003. His press material reads "...part of a growing trend in classical music to revitalize the role of the composer/performer," so there is nothing like putting it all out there first.

He followed this with two Tangos of Astor Piazzolla, and then Drei Tentos (1958) of Hans Werner Henze. His performance and delivery were similar to his master class the previous day, where he proved to be an intensely focused musician offering more musical and theoretical direction than the sometimes hackneyed "guitarist approach," yet in this program it was clear that the Henze pieces lacked direction and focus. Otherwise, Nicolella's playing was filled with energy.

Next came a guitar warhorse – "Torre Bermeja," by Isaac Albéniz – but this work, too, lacked conviction due in part to a struggling execution of linear passagework. It flowed right up to that point but then faltered and lost direction.

Nicolella is known for performing on electric guitar during otherwise "classical" programs, dipping into the well of innovative and avant-garde works in the process. On this occasion, he played "GRAB IT!" (1999), by Jacob Ter Veldhuis, for electric guitar and "boom box." This work uses a CD of audio samples taken from the 1978 documentary film Scared Straight that are rhythmically sequenced to form patterns. Playing a Fender Stratocaster, Nicolella read his part from a score, and the combination produced a fascinating ensemble, interesting timbres, and a well-focused sense of drive and energy.

The work appears on his current CD titled Shard. Because the source material includes profanity, the recording carries a warning label (which in turn probably helps sales), and from the stage Nicolella gave fair warning to the audience. And while you can endure hearing a repeated verse only so many times, and while content has a bearing on endurance, this particular work held the attention of the audience, earning warm applause at the end.

Edited, corrected 4/25/06.