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Although easily grasped and immensely successful as a popular instrument, in a classical context (the guitar) is often thought of as especially difficult – a judgment to which adventuresome souls who have attempted to study it offer hasty and emphatic agreement. Its problems are innumerable: it is cumbersome, played without the aid of fashioned tools such as bow and hammers; its sound must be controlled directly by the human substances of flesh and fingernail; at the slightest error of touch it balks; the movement of the hands on the strings can produce unpleasant extraneous noises and all manner of squeaks, clicks, rasps and buzzes. To play anything on it requires infinite patience. Its masters are few and all the more cherished. Mastery in youth is a rarity.
- Stolen from notes by Kay Jaffee for "Columbia Records Presents John Williams," 1964.
In the Porter Center's Scott Concert Hall at Brevard College, I scanned the assembled crowd at concert time and finally realized the significance of what was taking place. The place was sold out (750 seats); nearly every guitarist I know within a surrounding area of 100 miles was there, and for the first time in recent memory the pre-concert atmosphere simply crackled with expectation and excitement. Since April of 2005, the Porter Center has hosted a string of high profile guitar programs: the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Eliot Fisk, Paco Peña, Leo Kottke, and now John Williams and John Etheridge. All these concerts have sold out. You'd think something is going on here.
This is a good thing.
In the interest of full disclosure you need to know I have made my living as a music teacher and performing classical guitarist for over 35 years. I have been around the block a few times, but I haven't heard anything like this in a very long time.
Well, actually I have. It was a few years ago at Spivey Hall near Atlanta when John Williams was touring with "The Magic Box." That program featured African composers and was built on adaptations of music from Senegal, Cameroon, Zaire, South Africa, Madagascar and Cape Verde. That concert had much the same feel as this one in that many of the ensemble pieces were built around an odd-figured ostinato with other instruments jamming on top or around the edges. But I digress.
Here's the set-up.
John Etheridge: Top of the jazz and contemporary guitar world for 25 years, Pat Metheny called him "one of the best guitarists in the world." In '75, he joined the legendary jazz-fusion group Soft Machine and also partnered with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. His own bands are Sweet Chorus, a quartet, and the eight-piece group Zappatistas, which performs the music of Frank Zappa. He also has a trio with drummer John Marshall. He has performed on over 35 recordings and received unqualified accolades from peers. He played on "The Magic Box" tour. He's no slouch.
John Williams: Born in Melbourne, Australia, he lives in London, was taught guitar by his father Len Williams from the age of 7, took several years of summer courses with Andres Segovia at the Academia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy, and was graduated from Royal College of Music in London. By the early 1960s his deft technical skills had flourished to the point of legend and he was performing in London, Paris, Madrid, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. There are four primary classical guitar personalities of the 20th century: Williams, Segovia (dead), Julian Bream (retired), and Christopher Parkening (stuck). Williams' technical command, vast repertoire, and stunning variety is documented on 150 recordings, the highly successful "Profile" and "The Seville Concert" is a best-selling SONY video, and he has toured the world playing both solo and with orchestra. He's no slouch.
So this program brought together two stars of their field, alternating in solo and accompaniment roles and finding plenty of opportunities to blaze away. They are touring the U.K. and U.S. performing compositions written by themselves as well as some African music plus a new work by American guitarist/composer Benjamin Verdery called "Peace, Love and Guitars." It mirrors a current collaborative recording I was never able to find due to brisk after-concert sales.
From the beginning it was a love fest on both sides of the stage. Jazz man Etheridge ripped off strings of incredibly fast scale passages by the figurative handful (to borrow a phrase from an article by Paul Wills in the Tallahassee Democrat, 1974). His sense of humor kept the capacity audience in a fun mode, and they responded frequently with cheers. In the early going Williams looked and sounded like just another guitar player until his first solo, "El Ultima Cancion" ("The Last Song") by Agustín Barrios Mangoré. Formally known by the title "Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios," it is a huge and beautiful melody in tremolo form. It was performed with exquisite attention to phrase detail and executed with effortless technical mastery. Some audience members were crying.
So it went.... There were ensembles based on the "makossa," a popular dance from Cameroon, and then "Triangular Situations," which refers to the three cultural influences (Portuguese, Brazilian and African) on the Cape Verde Islands. Two pieces originally for kora – "Malinke Guitars" and "Djandjon" – and an interesting waltz with a gallic flavor and out-of-temp introduction called "Places Between" led to "Extra Time," a three-part improvisation that began with a masterful setting of J. S. Bach's C-minor Prelude from the WTC, Book I. The program ended with Verdery's long tri-part showcase, full of idiomatic techniques to enhance the jazz side including a change of instruments and a final section with a quote from Leo Kottke's "Machine #2." These guys wailed away for two hours at a very high skill level, never missed, and made it look like a walk in the park.
Wesley Arnold, a guitarist from Hendersonville, NC, and Music Major at Brevard College who has spent some time in Africa noted, "Williams did a great job with those African pieces.... Only he could make a guitar sound like a kora! (The) textures, rhythms, meter, and voices were all very accurate."
When it was over one guitar student walked up to me and asked, "Well, wha'd' ya think?"
Here is what I think. For listeners it was a feast of two worlds. For musicians it was a feast for the ears (when the sound system was operating properly). For guitarists it represented a fork in the road; either you stop playing, or you start.
Let the journey begin.