Tally up another fine chamber concert for the Eastern Music Festival faculty. Tuesday night's program at Guilford College's Dana Auditorium was varied, featuring some standards, some not-so-standards, and even a premiere. Most interestingly, the program's second half was a guitar showcase.
The concert began with the 5th of J.S. Bach's much-loved Brandenburg Concertos. One of the features behind the Brandenburgs' enduring charm is their varied instrumentation: each concerto features a different group of soloists. The 5th combines flute, violin, and harpsichord. In the first movement, the harpsichord dominates with a lengthy and unusual cadenza, which was tackled with energy and sparkle by keyboardist Eunhye Choi. Violinist John Fadial and flutist Ann Choomack, both sure-footed and expressive, filled out the concertino. Occupying the remainder of the first half was the premiere of Cones of Silence by Carson Cooman. This deliciously stark brass trio was performed by an outstanding combination of musicians: Chris Gekker on flugelhorn, Tom McCaslin on tuba, and brass superstar Demondrae Thurman on euphonium. As Gekker explained to the audience, Cones of Silence investigates intentional and conspicuous silences. While there is certainly a sparse quality to the piece, the silences don't call as much attention to themselves as the program notes would have us believe. I found myself paying more attention to Cooman's dry but finely-drawn harmonic schemes. The performers were extraordinarily delicate, their transparency resembling a woodwind ensemble more than a brass ensemble.
The evening's second half focused on the guitar, with performances by Guilford's own Kami Rowan and Peabody's Julian Gray. First up was the Alan Hovhannes Suite for Saxophone and Guitar, performed by Rowan in collaboration with saxophonist Drew Hays. This lovely modal piece traversed a wealth of textures. Between the gossamer delicacy of the guitar and the rich fluidity of the saxophone, there were many interesting and satisfying sounds.
The program's finest composition (apologies to the church of Bach) was Radamés Gnattali's Sonata for Cello and Guitar. Drawing heavily on the popular music of Gnattali's native Brazil, this extraordinary three-movement piece is both explosive and sly. Gray and cellist Neal Cary were excellent, driving the rhythms forward while maintaining extreme elegance and composure. Bravi to performers and composer!
To close out the evening, Rowan returned to the stage with tenor Jeremy Truhel for three Schubert lieder from Die Schöne Mullerin. Schubert works exceptionally well on the guitar, which provides the vocalist with a more intimate and supple accompaniment than the usual piano.
During all three of the guitar performances, the only problem was the guitar's extreme delicacy. What is in fact a very rich instrument feels tiny and overwhelmed in anything more than a small hall.
EMF isn't over yet, and the performers are in fine form. Greensboro residents, if you haven't yet, check the EMF calendar and catch a show. You will be amazed by the variety of repertoire and the quality of the performances.
Editorial: "A Call to Action for Guitarists"
In my review above, I qualified the fine performances by Kami Rowan and Julian Gray by mentioning the classical guitar's extreme softness. Out of respect to them and the other performers on the program, I chose not to include a lengthier discussion of the issue in the review itself, and instead submit this editorial for the readers' consideration.
After attending countless performances like this one, watching fine musicians work so hard for so little, I can no longer stay silent about the guitar's lack of volume: the guitar, in its current form, is simply not a concert instrument.
I myself am a guitarist. Although I play steel strings and their associated repertoire, I empathize strongly with the dilemma faced by Rowan and Gray and their nylon strings. In close proximity, the guitar is extraordinarily complex and resonant, capable of rich piano-like sustain that makes a violin's pizzicato sound puny. I often describe the guitar as combining the best features of piano and violin. But in a large concert hall, the guitar sounds like a child's toy. From my seat in the eighth row, not even a third of the distance from the stage to the rear of Dana Auditorium, I struggled to hear details. When the guitarists played solo passages, most of that sustain was drowned out by the air conditioning. And when the other instruments played? Forget about it. With each stroke, there was a feeble hint of attack, followed by nothing.
I am not pointing out this incredible lack of volume as an indictment against these extraordinary players, their beautiful instrument, and its huge and varied repertoire. I mention it only because I know how overwhelming the guitar can be when held in the hands, and I wish that concert hall audiences could hear and feel even a fraction of that sound. Right now, they don't. It's been my experience time and again that in anything more than an intimate room, the loudest sounds from the guitar, by far, are the squeaks of the left hand sliding along the strings and the percussive slaps from an aggressive strum or rasgueado. Fine guitarists like Rowan and Gray have invested far too much time and energy into their technique for those feeble sounds alone to be representative of their musicianship.
So, after all that complaining, do I have a solution? Yes. I believe that in medium and large halls, the guitar should be amplified by default. Even on Sor. Even on Bach. Even on de Visee.
Amplifying the nylon-string guitar isn't a revolutionary idea. It's done regularly in toque/flamenco styles, and amplification is sometimes requested by contemporary composers who write for the classical guitar, especially in combination with other instruments. I also realize that that guitarists have been discussing the issue for years, with figures as prominent as English superstar guitarist John Williams advocating for sensible amplification in large halls.
So why are there still so few guitarists regularly using amplification? I have heard the following charges: that amplification doesn't preserve the sound of the instrument, that amplified guitar doesn't blend well with non-amplified instruments, and that amplification is a historically inappropriate choice for performing Baroque and Classical repertoire. As to the first charge, contemporary microphone and pickup technology is extraordinary. This is the 21st century. If it's a clear, neutral, and transparent tone you need, you can have it, and at a reasonable price. There are a multitude of choices, from external microphones to internal pickup systems, and they all have the potential to be excellent. In fact, I contend that in a large concert hall, a well-amplified guitar is far more representative of the instrument's actual sound than are the feeble squeaks of an unamplified guitar. Blending amplified and non-amplified instruments is more of an issue, and one that should be taken seriously. But it's been my experience that experimenting with proximity and careful volume control produces great results. A small amplifier placed very near the performer on stage can blend seamlessly with other instruments. The larger the hall, the better the proximity trick works. Another option becoming more widespread is the hemispherical speaker, which uses a multitude of small drivers. These project much less directionally and sound much more transparent than conventional drivers.
Finally, we come to the historicist argument. I understand that to some performers, it just doesn't feel "right" to play Bach and de Visée through an amplifier. But there have already been huge changes to the instrument's design, construction, and technique. Today guitarists mostly use nylon strings rather than gut, use single strings rather than courses of multiple strings, play lute music on guitar, play on instruments that are braced and proportioned very differently from their historical predecessors, with different tunings and a vastly superior technique. Why not go all the way and make those newfangled instruments loud? I guarantee that it will still sound closer to the original than a piano does to a harpsichord (a substitution made every day in every university by every collegiate piano student).
I must reiterate that I love the guitar and its repertoire, and that love is the cause for my complaining. Attending yet another concert in which some of the instrument's finest proponents struggled to even be heard was the last straw. Their awesome musicianship deserves better. The instrument and the repertoire deserve better. I patiently await the day when I get to hear one enterprising player get up on stage, plug in, and rip through a Bach lute suite at grand-piano volumes.
July 21, 2016