Sunday, March 11, 2018

Two Guitarists Survey Spanish Repertoire

Four months ago this site reported on a harmonia mundi album entitled Encuentro, the Spanish noun for “encounter.” That title referred to encounters between Manuel de Falla and Federico García Lorca based on their shared interests in the folk origins of Spanish song. It also referred to the encounter of a flamenco singer, Estrella Morente, with a classically-trained pianist, Javier Perianes, to account for music arising from the encounters of Falla and Lorca.

Last night Herbst Theatre provided the venue for a similar encounter of performers, whose programming was inspired, at least in part, by that relationship between Falla and Lorca. This was the latest joint presentation by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts and the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Guitar Series. In this case the encounter was between two master guitarists, both of whom have previously performed for SFP. American Eliot Fisk was appearing for the fourth time since his debut in 1997; and Spanish guitarist Ángel Romero was making his second appearance, having made his solo debut in 2008. He is also known for his many performances with The Romeros, joining his brothers Celin and Pepe in a quartet created and led by their father Celedonio.

Fisk and Romero collaborated on preparing two-guitar arrangements of the two major compositions on the Encuentro album. The Falla offering consisted of six of the songs collected in Siete canciones populares españolas (seven popular Spanish songs), composed in 1914. Lorca was represented by eight of the songs in his collection Canciones españolas antiguas (old Spanish songs), for which Lorca himself wrote the original piano accompaniment. The collection consists of twelve songs, and only six of the eight performed were listed in the program. The interest in “origins” reflected by both composers was captured in the title of the evening’s program, Viva España.

Both of these collections were well represented by the Fisk-Romero transcriptions. The one Falla song that was omitted (“Seguidilla murciana”) was the most overtly pianistic. In the remaining selections Romero consistently took the vocal line, while Fisk accounted for the piano accompaniment (much of which was clearly inspired by Falla’s familiarity with Spanish guitar technique). The Lorca settings, on the other hand, were, for the most part, strophic. This allowed both Fisk and Romero to present their own takes on playing the “tune” of the song itself.

Much of the rest of the program involved the reflections of other Spanish composers on source material similar to that harvested by Falla and Lorca. Isaac Albéniz was represented by two of his more familiar piano pieces, “Sevilla” from his first Suite española and “Torre Bermeja” (red tower) from his Opus 92 collection of twelve Piezas características. Both of these involved Albéniz translating familiar guitar tropes into piano passages; so, to a great extent, Fisk’s solo transcriptions were restoring Albéniz’ transformations back to their “natural order.” The same could probably be said of his solo arrangements of Manuel Ponce’s lyrical “Estrellita” and Ernesto Halffter’s “Habanera.” On the other hand Francisco Tarrega was represented by his arrangement of a virtuoso violin étude composed by Jean-Delphin Alard for ambitious students.

For his own solo portion of the program, Romero played two pieces composed by his father, “Malagueña” and “Fantasia.” While there was relatively little spoken introduction of any of the music on the program, Romero became positively chatty in introducing his father’s music. The “method behind the madness” soon became apparent: Both of the pieces Romero played were dedicated by his father to the woman he would subsequently marry. As Romero put it, without that music, he might not have come into existence!

The one significant departure from Spain came at the very beginning of the evening. Fisk and Romero jointly transcribed a lute concerto in D major by Antonio Vivaldi. In my student days this was frequently called the “Vivaldi guitar concerto,” because it was a favorite among guitarists who were swept up in the rising Baroque movement. However, Vivaldi seems to have been unfamiliar with both Spanish music and Spanish instruments. Romero took the solo lute part, and Fisk provided ripieno support.

The one transcription that never really rose to the heights of the original was that of the Adagio movement from Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” This again was a joint transcription with Romero again taking the solo line. If Friday night’s Ébène Quartet performance of the second of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59 quartet reflected on the earlier performance of the first of the set by the Danish String Quartet, then last night’s Rodrigo selection reflected on Ébène saluting Miles Davis in their encore. When it comes to transcribing Rodrigo’s concerto, it is hard to beat how Gil Evans arranged that Adagio for Davis’ Sketches of Spain album. Evans clearly appreciated Rodrigo’s bold sweeps of orchestral sonorities and found just the right way to rework them for big band resources. However, those bold sweeps cannot get very far with only two guitars; so it was hard to listen to the Fisk-Romero arrangement without the bolder sonorities of both Rodrigo and Evans reverberating in memory.

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