Benjamin Verdery, chairman of Yale’s guitar department, is an established concert artist with a sizeable discography. In his Maverick Concerts debut he proved a better guitarist than composer, but his guitar playing was sensational.
Never having heard a guitar recital before at Maverick Concerts, I found myself wondering before Saturday night’s concert on July 5 how audible an unamplified guitar would be in the hall. The answer came immediately: very. And this guitarist was definitely worth hearing.
Benjamin Verdery has a long list of credits, including many concerts, 15 CDs, and his position as chairman of the guitar department at Yale. We could immediately hear why, as Verdery began his program with his own “Capitola,” a virtuoso piece which showed off his tremendous fluency on the guitar. Unfortunately, the music itself was barely out of the pops category, repetitious and lacking in content. Verdery continued with his arrangement of Couperin’s “Les barricades mystérieuses,” in which he showed a wide dynamic range and some tasty added embellishments. Another, longer work of Verdery’s, “Now and Ever,” professed lofty ambitions in the program notes (“the struggle and sorrow of so many repressed peoples throughout the ages”) but despite its virtuosity it again had little substance and failed to convince me. The audience seemed to enjoy it, though, perhaps in part because I saw several guitarists in attendance.
What convinced me beyond doubt that Verdery is worth hearing was the concluding item on the first half of the program, Verdery’s own arrangement of Bach’s Suite No. 4 in E Flat for unaccompanied cello. It was played on the baritone guitar, pitched lower than the normal guitar, an instrument Verdery acquired from a maker in Holland. This was truly distinguished and enjoyable Bach playing, with vivid characterization for each movement, lots of added embellishment for repeats (a major plus for me in baroque performances), and a final Gigue taken at a dazzling pace but with complete control. I also enjoyed Verdery’s idea of repeating sections of the Bourrée in artificial harmonics. My one reservation was that Verdery’s arrangement was plainer than it needed to be. When Bach arranged his unaccompanied solo string music for other forces, he freely added counterpoint, which Verdery refrained from doing. Maybe he just didn’t want to compete with the Master. Still, a distinguished performance.
Ingram Marshall seems to be gaining a reputation as an important contemporary American composer. I don’t understand why. Recordings have failed to convince me of the value of his music, and so do his “Soepa” for guitar with digital delays and loops. This piece, which went on for a quarter hour, sounded repetitious and boring to me, all sound effects and gimmicks with the only musical substance coming from quotes of the Couperin piece heard earlier in the program.
But the rest of the concert was delightful. Verdery played a well-selected group of pieces by “Latino Masters,” Brouwer, Barrios, Villa-Lobos, and Lauro, all very colorful and characterful performances. (I wonder where he got the idea that Barrios was an extraordinary guitarist, as he said in his introduction. The Barrios recordings I’ve heard show him barely able to get through his own music.) A concluding set of “Four North American Songs” arranged by Verdery was even better. Verdery has taken songs by Prince, Neil Young, Randy Newman and even Otis Blackwell’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and made greatly entertaining, inventive guitar pieces out of them without destroying their essences. The Newman song was particularly beautiful. As an encore, Verdery added Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” I have enough CDs in my personal collection, but when the disc of these arrangements Verdery mentioned comes out, I’m buying it.