Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Guitar Recital with Breadth and Depth

Last night Uruguayan guitarist Alvaro Pierri returned to Herbst Theatre to give his second Guitar Series recital for San Francisco Performances (SFP). He had made his SFP debut in 2015, which was preceded by his San Francisco debut in 2013 in a concert presented by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. (Presentation of the SFP Guitar Series is shared with the Omni Foundation.)

Pierri prepared a program that was impressive in both breadth and depth. All of the composers were either Old World or New World Hispanic, but the second half of the program focused almost entirely on the music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. It is also worth observing that the entire program exceeded two and one-half hours in duration, a span of time necessary to serve breadth and depth in equal measure!

The Villa-Lobos portion focused almost entirely on selections from the twelve études he composed for the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia in 1929. These pieces were not published until 1953, by which time they had gone through two revisions. A more recent and scholarly publication was based on closer examination of Villa-Lobos’ own 1929 manuscript pages, which took place during the final decade of the last century.

The études themselves are distinguished only by key and tempo markings. There are no explicit indications of skills to be developed by each individual étude. However, those not actively involved with playing guitar can appreciate how these études cultivate dexterity. At the same time one gets the impression that Villa-Lobos appreciated Johann Sebastian Bach’s approach to pedagogy by making sure that each étude had its own qualities of invention along with the technical challenges it provided.

Pierri probably limited himself to selections because these études pose as many challenges to the attentive listener as they do to the performer. The breadth of Villa-Lobos’ capacity for invention is clear from the vast extent of his catalog, and the fact is that any one of these études allows the listener to take in a variety of different dimensions of detail. By way of preparation, Pierri preceded the études with the cadenza he wrote out for his 1951 guitar concerto (also composed for Segovia). This served as a useful warm-up; but the depth of those études posed a bit of a strain on attention, particularly in light of all the music that had been played up to that point.

The three Old World composers were all Iberian, Joaquín Rodrigo and Federico Moreno Torroba from Spain and Miguel Llobet from Catalonia (with apologies to any eyebrows raised in response to the distinction). The New World composers were all South American. Along with Villa-Lobos they were Agustín Barrios (Mangoré) from Paraguay and Alberto Ginastera from Argentina. There were sonatas by Rodrigo and Ginastera and a sonatina by Torroba; but all three of the pieces involved relatively short movements, which tended to be on the same durational scale as the shorter pieces by the other composers. If this involved a program of longer-than-usual duration, the diversity of approaches kept attention fresh and alert as Pierri introduced each composer to his audience.

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