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Recital Review

Appalachian Guitar Fest Opening Night: Douglas James and Steven Thachuck

April 7, 2006 - Boone, NC:

The opening night concert of the Appalachian Guitar Fest is a widely anticipated event. It sets the tone for the weekend, it becomes a time to renew old acquaintances from years past, and two first-rate players share program halves with – usually – interesting works.

Festival Director and ASU Director of Guitar Studies Douglas James began the April 7 concert in Broyhill Recital Hall with a program of original 19th-century guitar music by guitarist composers Mauro Giuliani, Giulio Regondi, and Johann Kaspar Mertz.

Significantly, the entire program was performed on a "Mertz" style ten-string guitar bearing the label of Johann Georg Staufer, Vienna. This instrument features the usual six strings common to most guitars plus an additional four basses configured on a second, parallel neck. The additional notes below are A, B, C, and D. The instrument has 22 frets, and to help manage overtone intrusions, James used a violin mute to damp basses not used in each particular composition. We have read historical accounts of these instruments, seen photos from collections, and relished the prospect of additional sonic range evidenced in Mertz's scores with notes so far below the clef they're like dots at the end of a long ladder. But we really haven't heard one played in concert. Here was the real thing, bearing a famous luthier's name, producing music written for just this instrument and played by an expert!

First was the "Variations on a March by Cherubini," Op. 110, by Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829). This is a relatively florid set of five variations quickly departing the march and exploring conventional territory, with a codetta. There is a big cantabile espessivo capable of standing on its own and expected staccato chords, triplet arpeggios, straight sixteenths, and rapid octaves at the end that were played very well by James.

It was a very nice, tuneful opening work, played well. While not written for a ten-string guitar, the work is well within the period, and it gave us the first aural glimpse of the night ahead. The instrument is a window to both construction techniques and the listening environment of the era. It has nothing like the volume and dynamic range of contemporary guitars, so the audience listened with care to enjoy all the subtle nuances. It has a fine tone but not much depth. Everything is right out front, on the surface.

Next came the massive and haunting "Nocturne Reverie," Op. 19, of Giulio Regondi (1822-72). This child-star had an innate grasp of composition forms and the tension/release formula of the era. His most comprehensive works, the Ten Etudes for solo guitar, are accompanied by a half dozen major idiomatic concert works close in stature and expressive scope to those of Liszt and Chopin. Opus 19, arranged for piano in 1871 by Frederic Alque, is in five sections and features the main melody section in tremolo form. It is a compelling monument to all those techniques that make a guitar so endearing. It should put to rest forever those few holdout assertions that the instrument has no substantive repertoire, and it testifies to Regondi's stature as one of the most brilliant player/composers of his generation. James was clearly up to the task presenting romantic themes with just the right amount of rubato and nuance and brilliantly tossing off the virtuoso sections with authority. It is known that Regondi often performed on an instrument with up to three additional bass strings, and after hearing this performance it is difficult to imagine an effective realization of this music on a standard guitar.

The final work pointed directly to the night's theme: "Fantaisie Hongroise," Op. 65, No. 1, of J. K. Mertz (1806-56) was written specifically for the ten-string guitar. This piece is one of three from Op. 65, often catalogued as Trois Morceaux, and while there is speculation that all three were conceived to be played together, the Hungarian Fantasy is a fully complete and idiomatic work of the era. It is in three sections – a capricious introduction is followed by an Adagio maestoso – con entusiasmo. The concluding allegro vivace (scherzando) makes for flourishing finish. All the signature techniques are present – arpeggios, rapid scales, octaves, repeated chords, two and three note tremolos, and harmonic modulations to places so strange that just getting back to the tonic is worth celebrating.

James was cheered for this shimmering and insightful performance, and returned to the stage performing Mertz again – the dreamy Nocturne, Op. 4 –– as an encore. At the end, we learned that the label inside the guitar may be false. James has researched this era and these guitars, and he feels the characteristics of this specific guitar are more consistent with a turn-of-the-century Russian builder. "Quality of construction doesn't seem up to Staufer...." No matter. This instrument had great sound and a wonderful range.

Following intermission, Canadian guitarist Steven Thachuk presented a program of mostly pop arrangements and other transcriptions. He uses an instrument by German luthier Kolya Panhuyzen (who had a shop in Canada during the '80s) and plays in the classical position, but left handed! From the audience perspective that means the neck is bearing off to the left, not right. It is an odd perspective, and for veteran observers there was a delay in comprehension.

Clearly he is a pop-style player, and this program featured many of his strengths; "Imagine" by John Lennon, "She's Leaving Home" and "Come Together" by Lennon and McCartney (arranged by Chapdelaine), a noisy and not very interesting "Currents II" by Shawn Bell, and his own unique moto perpetuo titled "Room 249." His sound and the instrument's tone and volume filled the hall with a robust clarity, and the arrangements were interesting.

The other two works on the program left the audience wanting. He played the great "Capriccio Diabolico" of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, a solo guitar masterpiece written for Segovia that calls upon all the romantic trademark images of Niccolò Paganini. Either the piece was still new or Thachuk does not fully comprehend the contrasting themes and sections, for his performance had a bland sameness of character throughout, and none of the expected virtuoso flourishes inherent in the material were brought forward. There were also occasional errors of preparation.

The same was true of his program-ending transcription of "Hoedown" from Aaron Copland's Rodeo. While most of the thematic material was present and recognizable, the tempo was so slow we got the impression there was something wrong or he couldn't play the work. This can be a serious problem when music has a history of commercial use. Here, there is no escaping Robert Mitchum's booming voice declaring, "Beef! It's what's for dinner." We've heard the music with that commercial so much that any version at another tempo lacks credibility. In any case, Thachuk's arrangement is fine – it needs only a little more speed.