in: Reviews

February 11, 2019

Beyond Guitar Music

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If the Great Necks Guitar Trio were paid by the note, they could have amassed a fortune since the group’s founding nearly four years ago. “We’ve calculated the number of notes we play just in the first 22 bars of Finlandia to be 5,380,” trio member Scott Borg mused during the ensemble’s February 8th appearance at the First Lutheran Church of Boston. (Borg tallied the number of six-note chords strummed in 32nd notes on the trio’s collective 18 strings to reach that number.)

The highly accomplished virtuosi Borg, Adam Levin, and Matt Rohde care less about playing lots of notes than giving their audience a view of music previously unheard on guitars. The group is known for creatively adapting masterworks of the orchestral and piano repertoires for their three-guitar format. Hence, their program included works by Holst, Sibelius, Bach, Scriabin, and Márquez.

The artists opened with two movements from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. As the trio walked from the green room to the stage, they tapped on their guitars the rhythm of the ostinato that starts Mars, the Bringer of War, seamlessly transitioning to melodic and harmonic and material once seated. While rasgueado strumming originated with guitar music in Spain, the technique is now frequently used by guitar composers and arrangers for non-Iberian music. The brash strumming helped give Mars intensity and drama. Some sections featured percussive effects with light tapping on the bass strings, a pedal on the upper two strings, and an ersatz snare-drum sound, giving dynamic shape to the piece. In Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, the guitarists approximated the swirling string figure that begins the movement, the sweep of brass fanfares, and woodwind flourishes. They later traded melodies in counterpoint. Their sensitive treatment of the melody Holst later used for the British patriotic anthem “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” sounded poignant.

Movements drawn from four different works by J.S. Bach contrasted markedly with textures of the Holst. Bach’s often motoric contrapuntal lines translate well to a variety of instrumental settings, including those for guitar. This grouping drew from what Levin characterized as “Bach’s greatest hits.” Titles included the Overture from Orchestral Suite No. 3 BWV 1068 with its alternating fast and slow sections [HERE]. Rohde stated the theme from the Fugue of the Chromatic Fantasy BWV 903 with ringing campanella notes—a departure from renditions heard on clavichord or harpsichord. Each player alternately executed crisp and lengthy cross-string drills throughout the movement. The transcription of the more introspective organ chorale prelude Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland BWV 659 was notable for its textural transparency. Palm-muted bass notes imitated organ pedals as clearly defined middle voices and the expressive melody sounded above. In Bach’s Dorian Toccata BWV 538, for organ, the parts were again carefully delineated and imbued with a variety of timbres. The group took it at an adventurous tempo, sporting with driving momentum toward a final triumphant D-major chord.

Borg’s audacious arrangement of Sibelius’s tone poem Finlandia began the second half. In his introduction he told us that it “started the madness” of the group’s proclivity for reducing orchestral works to three guitars. The score opens with sustained brass chords marked forte. The dynamic level and sustain the composer called for exceed the sonic limits of guitars, so Borg employed loud rasgueados on all guitars to achieve maximum volume and sustain. Guitar one later jumped to fleet-fingered arpeggios above the fray as the dynamic softened over the course of the first 23 bars. Borg then lightened the texture with bell-toned harmonics for the brief exposition of the lyrical theme that later develops into the famous chorale tune (Be Still, My Soul) toward the end. Through the twists and turns of Finlandia’s moods and themes, the guitarists dug deep into the instrument’s idiomatic resources to effectively portray rumbling tympani rolls, staccato brass figures, and airy woodwind passages.

A set of six of Alexander Scriabin’s 24 Preludes, op. 11 for piano provided a respite from the intensity of the Sibelius. The brief pieces (none lasting more than two minutes) ranged from the peaceful lento of Prelude VI to the gently rocking of VII (Allegro assai) to the insistent eighth-note chordal pulse of XXIV (Presto). Each of these brief gems translates well to the guitar trio medium. Overall, they offered the performers the chance to adopt a lighter touch, especially Prelude XI, which showcased the melody in sonorous harmonics on the bass strings.

The program’s final work, “Danzón No. 2” by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, is a staple of Mexico’s contemporary classical orchestral repertory. It capitalizes on a range of tempos and lively dance rhythms that came to Mexico via Cuba, juxtaposing upbeat episodes with slow and stately sections. The trio played it with color and verve, conjuring up images of the couples on a ballroom dance floor in Veracruz that originally inspired the composer. In addition to deploying many of the guitar effects and colors heard in previous works on the program, Rohde, who arranged this one, added snapping bass strings as accompaniment and for a surprising punctuation of the final chord.

For their encore, the Great Necks offered “Asturias”—penned by Albéniz for piano—which has become immensely popular in solo guitar transcriptions. Taking great liberties with the score, Borg’s cast it as a 21st-century original work for guitars. He added string glissandi, percussive tapping and tambora, chords in harmonics, bent notes, tinkling pitches plucked behind the guitar nut, and more. “Asturias” typically lasts six minutes, but this rendition spanned eight, during which the Necks exploited every guitar trick for a thrilling concert finale.

The 12-member Boston Guitar Orchestra, conducted by Robert Bekkers, gave us an adaptations of “Palladio” (Karl Jenkins) and “Modina” (Jürg Kindle), and a stately instrumental version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” complete with a faithful rendition of Brian May’s electric guitar solo.

This was the third concert in the 2018–2019 season of the Boston Classical Guitar Society’s artist series following appearances by Ana Vidovic and Kazuhito Yamashita. A visit from Rene Izquierdo is slated for April 26. Czech guitarist and composer Pavel Steidl will appear on March 23–24 to premiere a work commissioned of him by the New England Guitar Ensembles Festival.

Mark Small is a music journalist, classical guitarist, and composer living in the Boston area. He served as the editor of Berklee today magazine for 26 years and is a regular contributor to various music publications.

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