Saturday, December 3, 2016

Lawrence Ferrara Returns to Old First for his Annual Holiday Guitar Concert

Last night in Old First Church, the Old First Concerts series began its annual month of seasonal programming with the also annual visit from guitarist Lawrence Ferrara. The title of the program was Holiday Guitar Concert; but the repertoire was entirely non-seasonal. Nevertheless, what brought a palpable “Christmas spirit” to the evening was an overall rhetoric of “peace on earth, good will towards men,” a disposition “devoutly to be wished” at a time when finding good news is no easy matter.

Unless I am mistaken, only one of the works on the program was played in the version in which it had originally been composed. This was the Allegro molto movement from Dusan Bogdanovic’s “Jazz Sonata” for solo guitar. Not all transcriptions were credited. However, Ferrara identified Andrés Segovia as the arranger of the two keyboard minuets by Jean-Philippe Rameau that opened the program. Similarly, he credited himself for the two short pieces that followed the intermission, Egberto Gismonti’s “Palhaço” (Portuguese for “clown,” as in pagliaccio), originally written for piano, and Astor Piazzolla’s “Adios Nonio,” written after the death of his grandfather and originally performed by choro ensemble.

The selections by Rameau, Bogdanovic, Gismonti, and Piazzolla were Ferrara’s only solo offerings. He was joined by flutist Harry Bernstein for Piazzolla’s “Libertango,” which the composer originally performed as a bandoneon solo. For the remainder of the program Ferrara was accompanied at the piano by Mengni Tang. The most interesting of the offerings was Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 525 in E-flat major, the first of the six trio sonatas composed for organ. Bach wrote these in such a way that there were three “voices,” one for each of the two hands and one for the pedal. In last night’s performance Ferrara took the right-hand line, while Tang played the other two at the piano. While the balance of dynamic levels was a little awkward, one could still appreciate the interrelationships that Bach unfolded with only three voices at his disposal.

The other two pieces on the program were concertante compositions for which Tang provided the ensemble accompaniment. Ferrara’s consistently low-key approach to these pieces was always engaging, reminding the attentive listener that a soloist does not always have to be a show-off. Tang’s accompaniment, on the other hand, was more variable.

In Antonio Vivaldi’s RV 93 D major concerto, originally composed for lute, Tang needed to do little more than alternate between ripieno and continuo; and, for the most part, her approach was consistent with Baroque practices. However, her continuo work for the middle Adagio movement sounded like an overly-lush nineteenth-century arrangement that quashed any sense of that movement providing a subdued serenade between the two lively outer movements. Technically, she was on much more solid ground in her accompaniment for Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Fantasía para un gentilhombre” (fantasy for a gentleman), a four-movement concerto based on seventeenth-century dances by Gaspar Sanz. However, this score offers some of Rodrigo’s most imaginative approaches to working with both winds and brass in an intimate chamber orchestra setting; and all of the dazzling colors he summoned were washed away in a piano reduction.

Nevertheless, the focus of the evening was Ferrara himself; and the calm, almost self-effacing, rhetoric that he brought to each of his selections provided welcome relief from all that violently aggressive ego-tripping that the media industry now chooses to call news broadcasting.

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