Boston GuitarFest: 17th Main Event

Eliot Fisk (Jesse Weiner photo)

After a two-year estivation in the virtual caverns of the Internet, the Boston GuitarFest resumed in-person activities (actually hybridized for this year) in its 17th iteration with a four-day festival of lessons, master classes, intramural performances and competitions administered by the Eliot Fisk Guitar Academy and hosted at the New England Conservatory, where Fisk heads the guitar department. The GuitarFest’s principal public concert came Saturday evening at Jordan Hall, with a mostly Spanish-tinged offering that also featured the premiere of a quintet written for Fisk by Daniel Strong Godfrey at Northeastern University. The name of Godfrey’s piece, Toward the Lightserved as the umbrella title of the evening.

The collaborators in the program were the Cassatt Quartet, an ensemble of sufficient longevity that it has outlasted all its founding members, and now comprises Maneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins, Rosemary Nelis, viola, and Gwen Krosnick, cello. They opened with Joaquin Turina’s La Oración del Torero, the Bullfighter’s Prayer, dating from 1926, and written alternatively for a string quartet or four lutes. One might be forgiven for thinking of this more as a dream than prayer, with plenty of muscle-clenching tension mixed fantasy-like with lyricism, pathos and reverie, and suffused musically with some slippery chromaticism reminiscent more of late-19th century harmonic gymnastics than the harsher strains of the 1920s. The Cassatt gave it a suave and somewhat laid-back reading, passing up the opportunity to impart the piquant edge from which it could have benefited.

Fisk, the last private student of Andrés Segovia and one of the world’s most eminent classical guitarists, cofounder of the GuitarFest and presiding spirit of his eponymous academy, did a solo turn with his own arrangements of five piano pieces by Spanish composers from the turn of the 20th century to its midpoint, namely Nos. 5 (Andaluza) and 10 (Danza Triste) from the Spanish Dances of Enrique Granados, Isaac Albéniz’s Torrre Bermeja and Seville, these two sandwiching Ernesto Halftter’s Habanera. The Halftter is a classic of its genre, but one is bemused to hear something written in 1950 that could have been a half-century older. All of these pieces have been arranged and performed by the great guitarists of their respective eras, so much so that they are probably more familiar than the piano originals, although you can hear all of them in both versions in the usual online quarters. The trick, therefore, is what each of these performer-arrangers brings to the table, which is usually a reflection on that person’s performing personality at least as much as his or her contemplation of the musical qualities of the particular pieces. The Australian John Williams tends to produce flash and fireworks, with lots of prominent sharp-edged harmonics; the late Julian Bream was similarly inclined but a bit more restrained, and Segovia played it straight down the middle, letting his prodigious fingers and clarion voicing do the talking. Fisk starts with the Segovia impulses but, from the evidence of this set, applies a creamy impasto and a typically American nonchalance and directness.

The no-nonsense aspect was evident from the outset as Fisk sat down, did some quick tuning and launched into Andaluza with barely a breath’s time between. Indeed, they moved so quickly from Danza Triste (which despite its name doesn’t come across as particularly sad, although it turns somewhat reflective in its center section) to Torre Bermejo that they seemed to constitute a single work. Fisk’s arrangements leave no trace of the pianistic origins of these pieces, and his playing strikes an interrogative rather than a proclamatory posture. With his restrained but pointed dexterity and his liberal rubato, he might be the Andrew Rangell or Russell Sherman of the guitar, probing without pushing. Like his teacher, though, Fisk maintains great clarity in the individual lines of the music and in the interplay of the choirs and their individual colors.

The second half consisted of two works for guitar and string quartet, the first being the much-performed Quintet No. 4 in D major, G448 (1798) by Luigi Boccherini, the “Fandango” quintet (for its last movement), which one might be forgiven for thinking was the only one Boccherini wrote (there are 9 listed on Wikipedia, and there may be others). Like all of Boccherini’s guitar quintets, this was a reorchestration of earlier pieces, which may partially explain its musical style, which was pretty retro even for 1798. Its layout harkens back to the Baroque sonata da chiesa format of slow-fast-slow-fast, which Haydn also employed fairly early in his career (Boccherini was 11 years Haydn’s junior, 13 years Mozart’s senior). An opening stately Pastorale in gentle tempo precedes a brisker Allegro maestoso, and the succeeding Grave assai is really just a slow introduction to the attached finale, which in its Spanish character and hell-for-leather exuberance makes a sharp break with the more decorous Italianate previous movements. In his only remarks addressed to the audience, while violinist Otani corrected some issues with her electronic page turner, they observed that a lot of the music in the piece had the guitar doubling other instruments, which was certainly true of the first two movements, though the Grave gave the guitar the statement of its lovely theme. Boccherini himself, it should be noted, was a virtuoso cellist, and much of the fun in this quintet lies in the interaction between guitar and cello, with Krosnick having many lyrical and dramatic moments in the second movement.

The reading given the Boccherini on Saturday was less than it could have been, seemingly under-rehearsed and unfocused. The playing, while accurate enough, was somewhat flabby in the Pastorale, tighter but no house afire in the Allegro, and without the unhinged edge in the Fandango that we’ve heard in other performances. It surprised us that Krosnick, who normally projects a rather forward musical personality, didn’t make more of the athletic spiccato that mimics the guitar, or the sharp rapping on the instrument that mimics castanets (some performances, such as this one we reviewed a few years ago, use actual castanets, but it’s not necessary for a convincing presentation).

If the Boccherini was a bit of a letdown, it was probably because all the performers’ attention had been directed at the real showpiece of the program, the premiere of Daniel Strong Gregory’s Toward the Light (2022). In four movements counting the cadence that occupies third position, their titles — for once telling you just what’s in the box — depict the journey from Dusk: Prayer to Midnight: Dance and through to Dawn: Escape. Strong, who is currently the chair of the music department at Northeastern, presents colorful and comprehensible yet clever ideas in an approachable idiom just crunchy enough to disclose a contemporary sensibility. The Dusk Prayer starts out contrasting the strings’ hymnic utterances with graceful guitar filigrees, suggestive in a way of Ives’s The Unanswered Question, but then combining and changing positions, only to return to the original affect. Godfrey’s Midnight really does dance, interrupting languid reveries and being in turn interrupted by them. The guitar cadenza was full and complex, with runs and chops that Fisk tore through with bravura. The whiffs of Spanish in it reminds one how hard it must be to avoid sounding Spanish when writing for classical guitar; the only clear examples we can recall were the brilliant Malcolm Arnold concerto and a piece by Arthur Berger from his plink-plonk period (let’s never go there again). Finally, the escape to dawn from the attached cadenza really felt like one, flight without fugue, but with rhythmic propulsion and leading to a light-filled epiphany in major mode, which settled back for the rhythmically-informed close (as with the ending of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, one sometimes thinks it would be better esthetically not to stick to the script). Still, this piece gives every evidence of having legs, reflected in the fact that Fisk and the quartet, whose playing was uniformly committed and urgent, chose to repeat its finale as their encore.

Our reportage would be incomplete without noting that following the music, the Fest announced and honored the winners of their performance competition for this year, who were: Chinnawat Themkumkwun (from Thailand), first; Yunzhe Lin (from China), second; and Benjamín González (from Mexico), third.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and the New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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