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Glimmering Optimism, Paths of Light


Jason Vieaux (file photo)

Aficionados had widely anticipated classical guitarist Jason Vieaux’s return to Boston as guest of the Boston Classical Guitar Society (BCGS) following an 11-year hiatus. Seeing him take the stage at the First Lutheran Church on Berkeley St. offered glimmers of hope for music fans longing for live shows.

Vieaux began with a transcription of J.S. Bach’s Suite for Violoncello No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007. He offered a decidedly lyrical reading of the work’s six movements in D major—which he informed the crowd was a more guitar-friendly key for the suite. In the Prelude Vieaux gave notable push and pull of the tempo and dynamic and tone color changes. The Allemande flowed at a relaxed pace and showcased the warm sonorities he educes on treble-string melodies. He dispatched rhythms of the Courante crisply and with unhurried tempo, yet he maintained plenty of momentum. As he did throughout the suite, Vieaux added ornamentation in repeated sections. The Sarabande came across as appropriately introspective. Vieaux imbued Minuets I and II with reserved rhythmic drive and shaped the bass lines with thoughtful articulations. He continued without pause into the Gigue, which he took at an easygoing tempo even though he possesses the technical capacity to fly in Bach’s fast movements.

Vieaux described Leo Brouwer as one of the 20th Century’s most important composers for the guitar and called out his El Decameron Negro as one of his greatest compositions for the instrument. Dedicated to Sharon Isbin, the three-movement work bears the descriptive titles (translated from the Spanish): “The Warrior’s Harp,” “The Flight of the Lovers Through the Valley of Echoes,” and “The Maiden in Love.” African folk tales inspired the first two movements, the third was a product of Brouwer’s own imagination (according to the dedicatee). Before commencing, Vieaux took a long pause, and bowed his head toward the floor. He then probed Brouwer’s dark, harp-like arpeggios and fragmentary melodic figures. Vieaux’s dynamics outlined the mood changes of the first two movements that juxtapose energetic passages with serene ones. The final movement features an instantly appealing melody that appears three times surrounding two turbulent episodes. Vieaux punctuated the ending with a vigorous pizzicato chord.

Vieaux began the second half with “Part 1” and “Part 2” from Four Paths of Light, a suite Pat Metheny penned for him. Vieaux shared that he became friends with the jazz legend after the 2005 release of his Images of Metheny album, a solo guitar rendering of Metheny compositions. “Part 1” gallops through odd time signatures riding an aggressive and insistent bass ostinato that moves through various tonal centers and ends abruptly with a dissonant chordal jab. Vieaux’s energy level never flagged throughout the challenging romp. “Part 2” has a plaintive melody played in various registers of the guitar, supported by a brooding, Methenyesque harmonic accompaniment in a quasi bossa nova groove. Vieaux apparently invests in the music very emotionally. He spoke about his enthusiasm for performing it in the city where Metheny launched his career in the 1970s.

Two compositions by Paraguayan Austín Barrios Mangoré have become staples of the repertoire. Vieaux projected “Vals op.8, no. 4” with a fitting lilt and played the run in the final two bars with bravura. In contrast, he interpreted the contemplative “Julio Florida” with tenderness.

In Vieaux ‘s own Home , the melody employs tremolo technique throughout on the upper strings. While the A section sounds somewhat dreamy, the B section moves to the parallel minor and a cloudier character before the recap of A. Vieaux told the audience that he composed it between March and June of 2020 during the shutdown. “Hence the title Home,” he said.

Danza Brasilera, perhaps the most widely performed composition by prolific Argentinian-born composer Jorge Morel, who died in 2021, closed the show. Based on a samba rhythm, it features a buoyant melody harmonized largely with block chords above a moving bass line. Vieaux took it at a good clip, nimbly negotiating its jazzy progression, modulations, and spidery vertical arpeggios. After all the upbeat action, the piece ends enigmatically on a subdued minor-major seventh chord.

After much applause and two curtain calls, Vieaux played his arrangement of “What a Wonderful World as an encore. The guitarist’s passion for all manner of classical jazz, and popular music shown out in his rendition. He incorporated a pop groove, jazz-inflected reharmonizations, flamenco rasgueado strumming, and his own distinctive intro and coda. The tune ended in a whisper as Vieaux’s right-hand lightly rubbed the bass strings.

The concert culminated the daylong BCGS Spring Festival which included a masterclass with Vieaux and workshops led by Kim Perlak (guitar chair at Berklee College of Music), Daniel Acsadi (Tufts University faculty member), plus other guitar-centric activities. To open Vieaux’s concert, a guitar quartet comprising Jerome Mouffe, Will Riley, Kim Perlak, and Daniel Acsadi (members of the BCGS board), premiered “Pictures from Moravia” by Czech guitarist and composer Pavel Steidl. BCGS commissioned the three-movement work which is notable for its utilization of a variety of guitar techniques and timbres: an ostinato with a curious rhythmic click produced on the strings of Riley’s guitar, as well as a light, flicking tremolo effect from Perlak and Acsadi, percussive taps by Mouffe, and liberal use of harmonics by all. The piece proved an audience pleaser with its angular, modal melodies, and round-robin ensemble passages; the group handled all with ease.

This was only the second live concert BCGS has presented since the onset of Covid-19. The virtuosic Vieaux’s impeccable performance, warm stage presence, and winning smile telegraphed optimism to all in attendance that live music is moving toward a full comeback.

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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