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Bermuda Guitar Festival 2013.

First evening: Stephen Crawford and Matt Palmer.

This year was the 10th anniversary of Bermuda’s Guitar Festival, Steve Crawford ‘s brainchild, and with true leadership Steve led from the front by playing the first half of the opening night’s concert.

He didn’t spare himself either, starting off with Fernando Sor’s Variations on a Theme by Mozart. Published in London in 1821, they were probably beyond the playing ability of any guitarist of the time except that of the composer. It’s a series of variations on an uncomplicated tune from The Magic Flute, but Sor gives it the full treatment of pretty much everything in the technical and pedagogic repertory available at the time: tremolo, harmonics, both stopped and unstopped, echo, hammering, rasgueado, you name it, it’s there. I personally think that the melodic structure isn’t really robust enough — almost from an engineering point of view — to support the technical complexity of the piece. It’s hardly a warm-up piece either. Steve had to ‘catch himself’ a bit between variations just to get his breath and prepare for the next one.

Next, two pieces by the Spanish composer Joaquin Turina (1882 — 1949), Garrotin and Soleares. These are flamenco dances, the first joyous and the second sad. Purists say it’s impossible to convey the real excitement and atmosphere of a genuine flamenco performance in the concert hall. I think Turina is about as close as you can get. Steve put these two pieces across perfectly.

Steve’s third piece was the evocative piece Cavatina composed by Stanley Myers (1930-93). Myers was basically a film music composer and I think John Williams adapted the piano piece for guitar sometime in the late ‘60s. The piece went on to become famous as the theme for the 1978 film The Deer Hunter as well as being used by Cleo Laine as the melody for her song, He was beautiful. The music makes use of unresolved major sevenths and suspended chords and a fuguelike ground bass to convey a sense of unrequited yearning and wistful regret. Very nicely played.

Rumores de la Caleta (sounds of the courtyard) by the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz (1860 — 1909) was part of a series he wrote, Voyages in Spain. In this piece he invokes the sound of flamenco players gathering in a courtyard and practising for a performance. It’s a wonderful example of sound painting on the guitar. The odd thing about so many of these 19th Century Spanish composers is that none of them played the guitar, they were all pianists. But that didn’t stop their pieces being adapted for guitar by Miguel Llobet (1878-1938).

Steve followed with a piece by the Argentinian composer Jorge Cardoso (born 1949), Milonga. The Milonga was an Argentinian dance which was a 19th Century forerunner of the Tango and it’s basically what has been called a ‘souped-up Habañera’ with stresses on the first, fourth, fifth and seventh beat of an eight beat bar. The treatment of the dance is one of a series of languid arpeggiated melodic lines interspersed with hints of sexy dancing. The piece was new to me and I found it enchanting. It was played with great sensitivity by Steve.

A change of pace! Flautist Nancy Smith joined Steve for two pieces. First, the French composer Francis Poulenc’s (1899 — 1963) Mouvements Perpétuels. Originally scored for piano solo, it adapts nicely to guitar and flute. It’s in three movements, the first quite naïf and almost rural, the second sharper and more cubist, the third incorporating the main theme and rounding off the piece. The guitar and flute sounded really well together in this piece which was completely new to me, as was the next. This was a modern Japanese piece by the composer Teruyuki Noda (1940 —) entitled Kokiriko, based on a Japanese folk song. The Kokiriko is a traditional Japanese percussion instrument made of bamboo and looks like an animated venetian blind. The sound it produces is a series of sharp clicks and the player can adjust the frequency of the clicks from one a second to blazingly fast. The piece was wonderfully atmospheric and evocative of the Japanese countryside.

The audience rose to their feet to applaud Steve and Nancy, who obligingly performed an encore of a rousing foot-tapping piece by 18th Century Irish Harpist Turlough O’Carolan.

Matt Palmer is one of the foremost guitarists of our time and we are lucky indeed to have attracted him to play here in Bermuda. His programme included large scale works such as Bach’s Chaconne to Manuel Ponce’s miniature Preludes and ranged from modern Ukrainian composer Stepan Rak (1945 ) to the 20th Century doyen of Spanish music, Joaquin Rodrigo (19011999).

Matt started the programme with a piece by Rodrigo, Un Tiempo en el Viejo Zaragoza (time in old Zaragoza). This was completely unknown to your reviewer and must form part of Rodrigo’s many rarely performed compositions about the regions and countryside of Spain. Zaragozan music owes a lot to the triple time dance of the region, the Jota, and this was reflected in the piece, which included some dazzling arpeggio work.

Matt next introduced the Bach piece (Chaconne from the 2nd Partita for Solo Violin, last movement) as the greatest solo instrumental piece ever composed. The dance form of ‘Chaconne’ is generally simple, a series of variations over a figured bass. Bach, however expanded the complexity of the variations and their technical challenge to cover a huge range of emotional landscape from tenderness through joy to utter despair. The Chaconne dwarfs the preceding four movements of the Partita to take on a life of its own, which is why it’s generally performed on its own. Matt’s performance was differently nuanced from other interpreters of the piece (Segovia, Williams, Alirio Diaz) to give more emotional space to the blazingly fast arpeggios and the huge tenderness lurking in the middle registers. One criticism I have is that the treble voices needed to have about 10% more emphasis because they were overshadowed sometimes by the tenors and basses. This was the first time I have heard the piece live and Matt’s version was beautiful.

The Mexican composer Manuel Ponce (1882 — 1948) wrote his 24 preludes for guitar in the late 1920s in imitation perhaps of Chopin’s preludes. They are miniature pieces — some are as short as 17 bars and have only recently been rediscovered. Matt played six of them with great proficiency and flawless technique. But they are fleeting pieces indeed and it took the audience, whose ears were still almost inside the mighty Chaconne, some time to realise that the programme item had finished, and to applaud.

The Collectici Intim by Spanish Catalan composer Vicente Asencio (1908 — 1979) are a series of domestic mood pieces: Serenity, Joy, Calm etc. The pieces are not only technically challenging, involving extensive use of harmonics and chords on the highest frets, they also vary between E and dropped D tuning, so the performer has to retune between movements. Matt accomplished this perfectly, and brought a good sustained sound to the pieces which meant that they didn’t sound strangulated as they can with less accomplished performers.

Finally, Matt played the Sonata Mongoliana by Stepan Rak. He explained that the composer favoured powerful technical playing and that the diatonic scales of Far Eastern folk songs permeated the piece. It’s a tour de force, starting with a balalaika-like tremolo over a bass line that sounds Chinese. The second movement is a storm of a folk song with a furious rasgueado ascending above the fretboard and ending at the bridge. The third movement restates the first with a wild, one could almost say demented, insistence.

The audience were on their feet begging for more, and Matt obliged with a Fantasie on La Traviata by Julián Arcas who taught Francisco Tarrega guitar. It’s a charming but technically advanced compilation of the main arias and formed a familiar end to a terrific evening.

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Published Jun 8, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Jun 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm)

Organiser gets things started with perfect performance

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