Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances presented the first concert in the annual Guitar Series that it organizes in partnership with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. The featured guitarist was Jason Vieaux. The program was a duo recital for which Vieaux was joined by Julien Labro, alternating between bandoneon and accordina, a variant of the melodica using an array of accordion buttons, rather than a piano-like keyboard. Both Vieaux and Labro were making their respective SFP debuts.
The entire program consisted of arrangements that were prepared by the performers. Most straightforward were the prelude and scherzo movements that Rossen Balkanski scored for guitar and piano. In this case Labro basically transcribed the piano part to fit the fingering suitable for the button keyboards of the bandoneon.
Both players collaborated on arranging Astor Piazzolla’s “Esucalo” (shark), which was originally composed for tango violinist Fernando Suarez Paz, who probably played it with one of Piazzolla’s combos. However, the music itself was a significant departure from the sorts of tango idioms one tends to associate with Piazzolla. Indeed, the rhythmic patterns were sufficiently complex that any attempt at dance would strain the efforts of even a sophisticated choreographer. As Vieaux and Labro played it, the music still reverberated with that “Piazzolla flavor;” but their execution amounted to an impressive account of the score’s uniqueness.
Vieaux’ other arrangement was of the Pat Metheny song “Antonia.” This was one of two selections in which Labro shifted from bandoneon to accordina. Metheny had originally scored this with an accordion as lead instrument, resulting in a rhetoric that was both sensitive and nostalgic. Vieaux’ arrangement captured that spirit, but the programming of the piece seemed to provide a respite from the more ambitious selections being presented.
Most ambitious was Radamés Gnattali’s Suite Retratos (portraits). Each of the four movements depicts a major Brazilian composer, and that composer is associated with a particular style. In order of appearance, Pixinguinha is represented by a choro, followed by a waltz for Ernesto Nazareth, a schottische for Anacleto de Medeiros, and the corta jaca (the Brazilian version of the tango) for Chiquinha Gonzaga. The suite was originally composed for two guitars and was part of the repertoire of the duo of Sérgio and Odair Assad. Each of the movements is punctuated with tropes and idioms associated with its respective composer. Labro’s arrangement maintained those references, translating the give-and-take between two guitarists into an equally engaging exchange between guitar and bandoneon.
Most fascinating, however, was the opening selection, which was Labro’s arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” (brothers). This is probably Pärt’s most familiar composition. The score consists of a series of chord sequences, each with either eight or nine chords. Soft percussion beats are inserted to punctuate those sequences. Pärt has prepared or authorized eighteen different versions of the basic score; and other groups have adapted it for their own resources. The California Guitar Trio of Hideyo Moriya, Bert Lams, and Paul Richards may well have learned the piece simply by listening to the ECM New Series Tabula Rasa album, which includes one performance by violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Keith Jarrett and another by the twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Labro’s arrangement tended to follow the version performed by Kremer and Jarrett (which was the piece’s original version). Labro’s account of some of the more elaborate arpeggios that Kremer played at the very beginning of his performance was impressively virtuosic. Percussion involved both Labro and Vieux knocking on their respective instruments. Pärt’s rhetoric of a hushed but intense stillness registered just as effectively as it has done in other violin-piano interpretations. The choice to begin the evening with this selection made it clear that this entire program would offer all the benefits of attentively focused listening.
The encore, on the other hand, was another matter. Vieaux and Labro let down their guard with an arrangement of the Tears for Fears song “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Labro returned to accordina for this one, making it clear that the encore was about having fun with a pop song from a more carefree past.