The name says it all. The Brazilian Guitar Quartet (BGQ) is made up of four of the finest guitarists from Brazil (often referred to as the "dream team"), and the overwhelming majority of the works they perform are by Brazilian composers. They played to a sold-out crowd at Whitley Auditorium on the Elon University campus on February 10.
It was quite encouraging to see a line of people waiting for "will call" tickets. I have heard some excellent concerts at Elon, including some big name groups like The Baltimore Consort, but this is the first time I have encountered such a rush for tickets at this venue.
Unfortunately, I missed a concert last year at Elon by Paul Galbraith, one of the founders of this quartet. It seemed that many people were not aware that Galbraith is no longer playing with the quartet, and I heard several remarks of regret about this.
The very first concert of any kind that I attended after moving to Durham in 1983 was a performance by The Romeros at Page Auditorium. For many years this family-owned guitar quartet was the only show in town. There were few, if any, competitors during or even before their reign. Then, in the late 80's four young guys emerged from the University of Southern California calling themselves the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. The level of playing and the repertoire for guitar quartets were raised to new heights as more ensembles were formed and many original compositions for this genre were commissioned.
The BGQ's first American tour was in 2000, so they are still a relatively new phenomenon. Two members of the current group - Tadeu do Amaral and Paulo Porto Alegre - play traditional six-string classical guitars; they were flanked by Ever t on* Gloeden and Nicolas de Souza Barros, playing eight-string guitars. Guitars with more than six strings are not uncommon at all; the additions are generally extra bass strings. These eight-strings are unusual in that the middle six strings are tuned like a regular guitar and are sandwiched between two 'A' strings - one below the low 'E' and the other above the high 'E' of the standard guitar. Gloeden played his eight-string in the same unusual manner as his predecessor Paul Galbraith - upright like a cello. The difference is that Galbraith actually had a cello-type endpin on his guitar and placed it on a wooden resonating box. The result was an incredibly sonorous and spacious sound that enhanced the instrument's natural volume. Gloeden did not use a setup like that; instead, he had the majority of the high parts, and his unusual instrument and technique facilitated his access to the upper frets, above the point where the neck joins the body of the guitar.
The evening began with one of only two non-Brazilian work on the program, a transcription of J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Harpsichords.* This group has an excellent award-winning CD of transcriptions of all four of Bach's Orchestral Suites, so I was looking forward to this performance, but I found it to be quite dreadful. It was so carefully played and planned that any semblance of life was snuffed out after a few moments. It fell into the trap of the clichéd "sewing machine" music that rolls along at a steady clip without any variance or freedom. The first movement was too slow and the famous Largo, too fast. All the notes were there - but that's it. Things quickly improved so much that I can chalk that opener up to nerves, or even perhaps that the language and style of Brazilian music is something that is just more amenable to them.
Heitor Villa-Lobos is the best known Brazilian classical composer, and he also wrote some of the greatest works for solo classical guitar. The BGQ played an excellent transcription of his String Quartet No. 5 that sounded like it had been written for four guitars.
The second half moved through a series of works by more modern Brazilian composers, each a transcription of a composition for piano. You could hear in many of these works the genesis of the more modern styles of popular Brazilian music such as the compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim. The breadth of Brazil's musical history is an astounding thing to hear, and the BGQ is rightly proud to be representing their country's musical riches. However, this evening of guitar quartet music could have had a bit more variety. Although there is not a huge repertoire, there are many excellent original works written for guitar quartet, and at least one of these could have been included to break up the full slate of transcriptions.
*Corrected 2/25/04 upon receipt of an email message from the BGQ's manager.