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Instrumental Ensemble Review Print

Guitar Trio: From Bach to Bossa Nova

February 23, 2003 - Durham, NC:

It felt more like a gathering of a group of friends than an artist vs. audience formal concert. This was the ambience created by the eclectic and electrifying performance of the Falla Guitar Trio at the Hayti Heritage Center on February 22. Presented by the Triangle Guitar Society as the highlight of their concert schedule, this group and program had something for everyone. This current tour introduces audiences to their newest member, 25-year old Gyan Riley, son of renowned composer Terry Riley. He replaces original member Terry Graves, who tragically died last summer, at the age of 48. Riley joins founding members Kenton Youngstrom and Dusan Bogdanovic in an ensemble that comfortably and authentically plays everything from all the "B's" and more: Bach, Bernstein, Bogdanovic, blues, bebop and Barber. In these days of "crossover" artists and recordings featuring classical virtuosos attempting to play jazz and other non-classical styles, it is refreshing to hear musicians who are well-versed virtuosos in all styles.

The concert took place in the magnificently renovated St. Joseph's Church, a perfect venue for intimate chamber music. Nearly perfect acoustics, visually stunning architecture, and cushions provided for the pew seating make attending a concert there a treat even before the music starts.

The evening began and ended with works by Manuel de Falla, the namesake of the trio. Both were transcriptions of selections from The Three-cornered Hat . The opening work, "Miller's Dance," immediately conveyed the virtuosity and remarkable ensemble work of this trio. Every work was preceded by a brief explanation by either Youngstrom or Bogdanovic. These remarks were informative and also helped create a less formal atmosphere.

Next up was an expertly-realized transcription of J.S. Bach's Trio Sonata in G, S.1038, originally scored for flute, violin and continuo. If anyone attending this concert thought that this was going to be just three guitar players jamming, this was quickly dispelled. Here you had "legit" playing at the highest level. This work was in the typical slow-fast-slow-fast structure, and the transcription itself was a remarkable feat. The trio displayed great control and the ability to sustain long, lyrical lines in the slow movements as well as an infectious energy and virtuosic display in the fast movements.

The next work on the program gave the crowd a chance to hear Bogdanovic as composer. This humble, unassuming man is perhaps the jewel of not only the guitar world but of contemporary music in general. In addition to his obvious playing chops, he is a gifted and prolific composer drawing on a wide range of styles and influences.

"Three Straws," for two guitars, consists of three short movements based on the folk-tune "Turkey in the Straw." As played by Bogdanovic and Younsgtrom, this projects charming and effective bursts of energy culminating in a "take your breath away" finale that combines canonic statements of the tune with an almost minimalist effect.

The program lists the next work, "Fantasia," as an "extemporized composition," which seems to be a contradiction in terms. This gave the group its first chance to improvise and was a captivating experience in a somewhat Middle Eastern-flavored style.

The first half ended with "Women's Dance" by Milchio Leviev, described in the excellent program notes as "Bulgarian blues." With its asymmetrical rhythms, haunting modalities and an other-worldly feel, played with impeccable timing and skill, this reminded me of an instrumental version of the type of works I heard the Yale Women's Slavic Chorus perform last month.

Composed by Samuel Barber to "prove he could write American music," Excursions , Op. 20, is a perfect vehicle for the trio. Transcribed from the original piano version by Younsgtrom, it ranges from folk music to blues to a Copland-sounding finale and sounds like it was written for three guitars.

If there is such a thing as the Falla Trio's "greatest hit" it would have to be their adaptation of excerpts from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story . Again, the orchestration is a masterpiece in itself. The selections included "Mambo," "Cha-Cha" and "Cool." This gave us a chance to also hear the trio's vocal accompaniment as well as their percussive effects on their guitars. The transcription is not only a perfect vehicle for the trio but it also displays the magic and genius of what is probably the greatest score ever written by an American composer.

The trio's members then really let loose to display their jazz chops and improvisation skills in a rendition of Kenny Dorham's classic "Blue Bossa." A wonderful Brazilian rhythm was maintained as each player traded off taking solos. If it wasn't clear before now it was unmistakably evident that these are real jazz players, not just people playing written-out solos. A great sense of swing and facility dazzled the audience. This continued on into the only encore, "Spain," by Chick Corea. It was a great ending for a very special evening.

Congratulations to the Triangle Guitar Society for bringing such an esteemed ensemble to our area and for a successful showing. Please support this fine organization. You can visit their website at http://www.triangleguitar.org/ [inactive 10/04].