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The days of North Carolina being a cultural backwater are long, long gone, yet there will always be celebrated musicians who for one reason or another have never stepped on stage in any venue within our borders. So it was with great anticipation that audiences awaited the very first concert in North Carolina by Roland Dyens, the great French composer/guitarist. This was a joint presentation by Greensboro’s Music For a Great Space as part of their 2008-09 French Connections series, and the Piedmont Classic Guitar Society. The recital took place in the cavernous Christ United Methodist Church and a nearly full house was on hand to welcome the French master.
Monsieur Dyens is a modern version of a very long tradition of guitar/lute players who were virtuosos on their instrument while also contributing huge, important and often revolutionary original works. Many of his compositions have long become staples of the guitarist’s modern repertoire, and his unique and complex arrangements of jazz standards and Brazilian favorites have challenged and delighted guitarists for going on 30 years now. Having heard Dyens on several occasions and coming away thrilled and inspired, especially by his consummate arrangements and improvisations of the Great American Songbook, I was excited to get to hear this again, even as a small part of the program. This was not a blind expectation, since every ad and press release of the concert highlighted this facet of Dyens’ many talents. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
Dyens strolled out, exuding an air of musical mastery, mystery and eccentricity that gave the entire evening a slightly askew feeling. He began with what is a hallmark of all of his concerts – some improvised playing. When done, he explained this as his/the audience’s/the building and the guitar’s familiarization with each other. He then played several original compositions – very lyrical and harmonically rich. By this time I was sensing something not quite right with the sound. Although he had a microphone for the guitar, as well as a separate one for speaking, the sound was not carrying at all – and I was in the first row. It turned out that the presenters had neglected to do a sound check right before the start and Dyens played the entire first half to a turned-off mic and an aurally straining audience.
Dyens is a master at using every conceivable percussive element of the guitar and his elegant hands evoke sounds that bring forth a fresh palette of sounds. He is a physically unfussy player but his expressive face conveys the emotions behind the music. About one third into the unintentionally unamplified first half he played a composition by Alfred de Rocha Viana Filho, better known as "Pixinguinha." Dyens spoke of the reverence that Brazilians have for this composer of choros, so much so that he is considered a god in that country. It was then that Dyens said that the remainder of the evening would be taken up with the works of Pixinguinha. Say it ain’t so, Roland! I am as big a fan of Brazilian music as there is, but having played and previously heard much of Pixinguinha’s music it is my humble opinion that he is neither a god nor even a close cousin. Of course, I may just not understand – it’s a Brazilian thing. Halfway into the second half came the “Aha” moment when Dyens spoke of his soon-to-be-released CD consisting entirely of the music of – you guessed it, Pixinguinha.
This was a most unfortunate introduction of this magnificent artist to the musical community of our state. A majority of the works played were languid and listless bordering on the downright lethargic. Dyens’ playing can be subtle and he favors the low end of dynamic shadings so much was lost, especially in the first “acoustic” half. However, we experienced what could have been, with some fantastic and energetic highlights. The first was Dyens’ wonderfully inventive arrangement of "Felicidade," a song by Antonio Carlos Jobim that easily goes on the top-ten-list of greatest songs of all time. For guitar virtuosity and a demonstration of non-traditional usages of the instrument, it was Dyens’ playing of a composition by the late Baden Powell, one of the pioneers of Brazilian guitarists/composers, that pricked up everyone’s ears and spirit.
Roland Dyens, like his guitar contemporaries such as Leo Brouwer, Dusan Bogdanovic, David Leisner and Nikita Koshkin, to name a few, do a great service of contributing to the repertoire of the guitar as well as friendly proselytizing for the instrument and its music. I submit this regretfully as an evening that was not fully representative of the scope and power of this artist. He ended the evening with an encore by his early 19th century predecessor Fernando Sor, a simple but touching lament.