What else can be said about the current “New Normal?” Social distancing forced the cancellation of nearly all of our concerts, which means that musicians are not performing for audiences in the same room if they’re performing whatsoever. Music has entered uncharted territories. That has not stopped the ever bar-raising concert host Groupmuse, however, which has transferred its concerts over to Zoom for its digital audience. One took place on April 3rd over cyberspace: guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan played for nearly 70 people across the world through a webcam and sophisticated microphones while the audience sat on couches or in their kitchens at home drinking wine and enjoying one little respite.
Larget-Caplan started the unusual evening a couple of his own transcriptions from J.S. Bach Well-Tempered Klavier. The ubiquitous C major prelude showed his fluidity and deep sense of forward momentum that rivaled many keyboardists. He let the music ebb and flow with a firm hand but a sensible gentle guidance. The second was the B-flat major prelude transposed down to A for the sake of the guitar. Rather than showing his inner musicality, this prelude showed the artist’s expressive virtuosity, making the rather unidiomatic prelude seem easy on the guitar. This reviewer wishes he could have LC’s confidence.
Taking a second to acknowledge the reality of our current world, LC dedicated Augustin Barrios’s Una Limosna por Amor De Dios (roughly translated to “A Donation for the Love of God”) to the victims of COVID-19 prior and coming. Centered on rasgueado playing with a line over it, it gave him a chance to explore the colors of the instrument with great ease. The melody effortlessly sang out over the accompanying rasgueado strumming. This number seemed to be an audience favorite from what this reviewer could see from the other webcameras; the audience members popped up infrequently throughout the stream, as the Groupmuse host muted everyone except LC. During the applause, the other viewers came on the main screen; this reviewer did note that the audience was visible on the all users bar at the top of the screen, so some of the reactions could be seen in real time. It felt like looking out into the audience to gauge reactions but where one could see all the faces at once. Suffice to say, this was a slightly unusual sensation, but not one to scoff at.
LC represented his commissioning series “The New Lullaby Project” with Stephanie Ann Boyd’s Esperanza. Boyd, who was in the digital audience, said that she wrote the piece as though she were writing a lullaby for her little sister (who was also in digital attendance) titled with what she called the most beautiful girls’ name while exploring magical and dreamy sounds from the guitar. Laced with harmonics and initially minimal chord flourishes, LC crooned the soft melody as though he himself were singing it. Gradually, the piece built up intensity until a very strong climax that lead back down into the quiet realm where it all started from with the only difference being a return to harmonics rather than merely restating the melody. It was a beautiful lullaby, though the climax might have awoken the sleeping baby girl.
This reflective atmosphere came abruptly crashing down with España Cañi by Pascual Marquina, arranged by LC for guitar. Originally an orchestral work heralding in the bullfighter to the ring, this transcription had all the hallmarks of a Spanish piece of music that need not be stated, for imagination is enough. LC imbued it with the proper amount of aggression and machismo needed to keep it interesting and the sound bitingly sharp. This piece also let the audience really see LC’s precision and accuracy with his right-hand technique, which occasionally moved so fast it blurred in the otherwise clear webcam feed.
Following in his own transcribing footsteps, LC treated the audience to one of his John Cage transcriptions for guitar, In a Landscape. This choice was a rather bold one, as the guitar both can and cannot have the same resonance as a piano or harp, as Cage originally wrote for. Through some creative manipulation of placing lines on different strings and exceptional left-hand technique, LC pulled it off quite well. The resonance needed to sell the landscape sounded most of the time; there were occasions the mechanics of the instrument did not allow this to happen, which was disappointing but understandable. Deceptively simple and harmonically dream-like, LC really pulled this one through and made what seemed to be a difficult choice for guitar extremely convincing.
This reviewer, who has been to several of LC’s concerts, was not surprised that the traditional ending of The Legend of Hagoromo by Keigo Fujii rounded out the program once again. As one of only a handful of guitarists to be able to play such a complex piece, it is understandable why he has adopted that tradition. Basing the work on a 13-century Japanese legend of the same name, Fujii crafts a tour-de-force solo-concerto for guitar while maintaining a folk-like wonder to the sound, in no small part due to the resonance of the strange DADGAD string tuning and use of nearly every possible standard technique for guitar. LC burned through this one like thermite through steel, meeting Fujii’s challenge with unprecedented skill. Quick changes in playing style or technique shifted like greased levers with clear musical intent and integrity. Whatever the guitar can do, LC can do 50 times better than other guitarists. When the piece got very quiet, Zoom did seem to filter out some of the music, making an occasionally strange gap of watching him play while hearing nothing, but what can be done with technology in that case?
If this New Normal has led to this reviewer hearing such a fantastic guitarist from the comfort of my bedroom on a computer with (sub-par) speakers, for the time, I will take it. I would listen to LC live or on livestream any day.
As for Groupmuse and their new attempt to keep the music going, this first Boston-based concert was definitely an admirable effort. The platform, Zoom, was never built for concerts, so the fact that this one worked as well as it did is a testament to the software and its functionality. Perhaps they can fine tune this system for our uses, but to them, concerts are completely ancillary functions to the business meeting. Groupmuse kept a charge of $3 to attend the livestream, which is completely understandable. So long as the organization and the performer work together and utilize moderately professional equipment as a base line (LC used some studio-quality gear for this concert, and rightfully so), the fee is negligible. Perhaps to warm people up to this new idea they should offer one concert booking free to their base, but that would only be to drum up support if needed. I think it definitely worked, and so long as this New Normal persists, this style of concert-going experience serves to be a good band-aid to the situation.
Ian Wiese is a doctoral student composer at New England Conservatory studying under John Heiss.