Jason Vieaux on the cover of his solo Play album, which includes selections from last night’s concert (from the Amazon.com Web page for the album)
Last night guitarist Jason Vieaux returned to Herbst Theatre to present the second concert in the annual Guitar Series organized jointly by San Francisco Performances (SFP) and the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. He had made his debut at Herbst in October of 2017 in a duo recital with Julien Labro, who alternated between bandoneon and accordina. Last night was Vieaux’ solo debut.
The diversity of the program was as impressive as it was engaging. Original compositions by Mauro Giuliani, Frank Martin, Agustín Barrios, and José Luis Merlin alternated with arrangements prepared by Leo Brouwer, Roland Dyens, and Vieaux himself. Technically, the most impressive of those arrangements was probably the one Vieaux prepared of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1001 solo violin sonata in G minor.
This music has become familiar to those interested in the plucked string repertoire. When mandolinist Chris Thile gave a solo performance for SFP in April of 2012, BWV 1001 served as the “spinal cord” of his entire program, alternating its four movements with a generous offering of eclectic breadth. (Thile went on to his recording BWV 1001–3 for an album that was released in August of 2013. Recordings of BWV 1004–6 are still forthcoming.)
Vieaux brought a keen awareness of the rich polyphony served up by all four movements of BWV 1001, which is rich in both melodic sequences and progressions of simultaneities. (It is important to remember that the violins of Bach’s day were more conducive to bowing multiple strings, including all four of them, than more recently made violins are.) Vieaux’ technique was most evident in his ability to sort out the multiple voices engaged in the subject and countersubject of the second-movement fugue; but the agility of precision in presenting the gigue in the final Presto was equally impressive.
That Bach selection was preceded by Giuliani’s Opus 107 set of variations on a theme by George Frideric Handel. The theme was probably familiar to many of those that visit Herbst frequently, since it is also the theme that Johannes Brahms took on for his Opus 24 set of 25 variations followed by a fugue, composed for solo piano. Giuliani, on the other hand, composed prolifically for the guitar. He clearly understood the instrument’s capabilities and developed appropriate tropes to serve those capabilities. His variations may not have been as dazzlingly inventive as those Brahms would later compose, but they provided an excellent platform for Vieaux to present his technical skills.
Those variations were, in turn, preceded by Brouwer’s arrangement of Domenico Scarlatti’s K. 208 keyboard sonata in A major. Brouwer, who is still alive and active as both guitarist and composer, tended to play up his own contemporary idioms, using his Scarlatti source as a platform. However, like the Bach sonata, Scarlatti’s sonatas were probably composed for pedagogical purposes; and part of pedagogy involves exploring different approaches to interpretation. Brouwer’s approach may have been more “contemporary” than any Scarlatti might have imagined; but, through Vieaux’ interpretation, it made perfect sense as music in its own right.
The second half of the program was framed by two collections of miniatures. Martin’s 1933 set was his only composition for guitar, four short pieces originally intended for Andrés Segovia, who found them too difficult to prepare for performance. As a result the music eventually found its champion in Julian Bream, who gave it a prominent place in his recital repertoire. Merlin’s suite, on the other hand was, in his words, “an homage to memories,” recalling four distinctive traditional Argentinian forms framed by an “Evocación” movement, which occurs twice.
South America was also represented by two other composers. First came an engaging waltz by Barrios that reflected the rhetoric of Frédéric Chopin in a Brazilian mirror. This was complemented by the later bossa nova rhetoric in the form of Dyens arrangement of the Antônio Carlos Jobim standard “A Felicidade.” Jobim, in turn, was complemented by Vieaux’ own arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” providing a North American standard to balance the South American offerings.
North America was also the base for Vieaux’ encore selection. “What a Wonderful World” was composed by George David Weiss, working with record producer Bob Thiele, who wrote the words under the name “George Douglas.” The result became one of Louis Armstrong’s signature offerings. It may have leaned more to pop than to jazz; but it was right up “Pop’s” alley. Vieaux’ arrangement had a quietude that matched Armstrong’s delivery of the words, putting the cap on an evening of engagingly imaginative programming.