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Realm of Guitar: John Williams


Over many years, John Williams has been creating an unmistakable realm of guitar. Not surprisingly the mention of both his name and his instrument bring instant recognition from so many beyond the coterie of guitar enthusiasts. This, Williams’ seventieth year, shows him continuing on with his most extraordinary achievements, namely his extensive concertizing and his prolific output of recordings. Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory filled up completely on Friday, March 25, with the return of Williams to Boston after too long a hiatus, thanks to Celebrity Series of Boston.

It cannot be said that this realm which he has created is a distilled one, not at all. Though what I think I have learned from following him over the years and what I heard — and saw — last night centers on the how his guitar can speak rather than how he can speak through his guitar. Under his hands, the instrument is not so much a means as it is an end in itself.  Musical speech, dance, mood — all these expressions become one. John Williams has an incomparable and far-reaching grasp of the power of the guitar.

For some ninety minutes of absolutely cosmic concertizing, Williams only looked away from his instrument when it became time to introduce a piece or recognize the audience’s applause. But even then, after a nod and a thank you, he would quickly redirect our attention back to the guitar. More often, his eyes completely focused on his left hand moving over the fingerboard. From time to time, there would be glances at his right hand working in “fingerstyle” (so named for plucking the six strings of the “classical guitar”).

One of his enjoyable comments while tuning (which he did quite a bit of):  “NInety percent of the time is spent tuning the guitar; the other ten percent is spent playing out of tune.”

What there was to watch was only the guitar and his hands, maybe every so often a slight gesture from his head or upper body. So it seemed that when he did finally take a bow it was for the guitar or for the composer whose music he presented.  All composers on this program were themselves guitarists: Heitor Villa-Lobos of Brazil, Leo Brouwer of Cuba, Agustín Barrios Mangoré of Paraguay and Francis Bebey of Cameroon.  John Williams included two of his own compositions, one entitled Hello Francis, a “tribute to his close friend, Bebey, guitarist, composer, ethnomusicologist” and more.

Invigorating it was to take a detour around the instrumental scene of sonatas, concertos and symphonies, cultures of the Europeans, Russians and Americans.  I say “detour around” for what cultural touches these Latinos and one African brought to their rhythms and harmonies; they did so on a common ground, tying their music to these other cultures, continents, and other centuries as well.

Five Prelúdios of Heitor Villa-Lobos shared Debussy’s Impressionistic harmonic palette along with  Bach’s Baroque sequential patterns in Brazilian beats. El Decamerón negro of Leo Brouwer translated European discourse into Cuban enchantment. O Bia of Francis Bebey mixed pop, classical jazz with Makossa, the popular urban music of his country. Williams has often spoken about his unreserved admiration for the Paraguayan Agustín Barrios Mangoré who, he said, “was very popular only in his country and especially in Venezuela in the 1930s when he once gave thirty concerts in twenty-five days!”

La Catedral’s three movements also give Bach the Latino touch, while Julia Florida, Vals No. 3 and No. 4 reach out to the late-nineteenth-century European Romantics’ idea of dancing. Un sueño en la floresta imitated the Italian mandolin with a melody plucked in rapidly repeating notes up on higher strings while asking Willams to keep a continuous bass line going underneath the Alberti-like interior harmony — what a feat of fingers!

John Williams’ From a Bird, three pieces in all, is based on the song of an Australian bird who he said “sang in the key of C, its song being the clearest in the first piece, a fetching guitar statement.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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