Every October for the past 20 years hundreds of classical guitarists from all over the world gather at a major American or Canadian city to enjoy a week of concerts, workshops, opportunities to sample many luthiers' guitars, and generally bask in the camaraderie of fellow musicians. This yearly festival is sponsored by the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA), which gives aspiring concert guitarists the opportunity to take part in a competition that over the years has grown increasingly competitive. The level of guitar playing in the past two decades has reached such a high caliber that, as in the judging of Olympic events recently experienced in Salt Lake City, winners of this and other similar competitions can emerge on the thinnest of margins.
As part of the first prize, the GFA sponsors a 50-city concert tour of the U.S., usually at colleges and guitar societies. It turns out that Martha Masters, grand prize winner of the 2000 GFA International Solo Competition, arrived at Durham to play her 50th and final concert on this tour. You can read about her tour, view photos of the cities where she's played, and learn more about her at http://www.marthamasters.com/ [inactive 12/03] - a wonderful web site that will provide you with much information.
This recital was the final concert of the Triangle Guitar Society's 2001-02 season, and it took place at the Durham Arts Council (DAC) in downtown Durham. As a former board member of this organization and someone who has booked concerts at this venue, I think the public should know about the great support that the DAC provides to the community. Renting space to present a concert can be a very expensive venture, but the DAC provides this intimate hall at a very reasonable cost-which ultimately allows local arts organizations to thrive and present more programs.
Masters began her program with a perennial favorite of guitarists-the so-called "Lute" Suite No. 1 in E minor, S.996, by J.S. Bach. I use the term "so-called" because there is some debate regarding exactly what instrument this was originally written for. Most now agree that it was actually intended for an instrument that was a cross between a harpsichord and a baroque lute. The original key was E minor, a very guitar-friendly key in which it is always played. This is a work that, with careful articulation, is both harmonically and melodically rich. Its very dramatic opening is followed by a presto fugato passage. Right away you could sense Masters' total control, beautiful sound and careful articulation. Many players try to race through this fugal part of the Prelude, thus losing much of the incredible counterpoint and harmonic richness. Her slower tempos throughout most of the Suite allowed the genius of Bach to come through rather than serving as a mere display of technique. Her ornamentation was for the most part tasteful and, as is often the case, was usually displayed only during the repeats of the binary dance forms.
Next up was a seldom played work by the French guitarist/composer Napoleon Coste. This was a charming Introduction and Rondo with a folk-like theme that was very reminiscent of a motif from Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. Unfortunately it was during this work that there started to emerge a feel of a certain sameness in Masters' playing. Too much of a good thing can eventually wear on you, and her beautiful tone and precise rhythmic articulation cried out for some variation. This became even more apparent in the next two works, by the Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. The first, "Milonga del Angel," was perfectly suited to her style-lyrical and harmonically rich, requiring beauty of sound as the primary feature. The second, "Verano Porteno," is the epitome of Piazzolla's style. While all the tango-based rhythms were "correct," there seemed to be a lack of involvement with the rhythmic energy and drive that is the essence of this music. Some variation in tonal colors would also have helped.
The second half was taken up primarily with standards of the guitar repertoire that have come down to us via Segovia and his relationship with composers who wrote new works for the guitar. Masters spoke eloquently and gave some background regarding this process. Especially with the guitar compositions of the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce, there has always been some controversy on where Ponce's work ends and Segovia's "corrections" begin. The "Thème varié et Finale" is one of Ponce's most popular works. An impressionistic theme is reminiscent of Debussy and there follows several inventive variations and a rousing finale. A Sonata by Joaquin Turina was played but in a version taken from recently released manuscripts of the composer's original score and not Segovia's edition. As in the Piazzolla, this is a work that is rhythmically-focused, and I found the playing to be a bit too polite and restrained. I found her realization of "Drei Tentos" by Hans Werner Henze to be the most compelling performance of the afternoon This was written for guitar to be played as interludes of a larger chamber music piece, and the energy and variation in sound she brought to this work was remarkable.
This was my first time hearing Martha Masters and I'm sure that after a 50 city tour it becomes very hard continually to inject great excitement and enthusiasm into every performance. Fantastic technique and experience can just take over, but sometimes that isn't enough to transform a good concert into a memorable experience.