British Classical Guitar Quartet Astonishes With Fantastic Concert of Diverse Music
– by Lee Greene
When one thinks of classical guitar, what usually comes to mind are a limited repertoire of mostly Spanish sounding pieces highlighted by the works of composers like Enrique Granados, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Francisco Tarrega, and Augustin Barrios Mangoré, with a few older pieces by Mozart and Bach sprinkled in, performed by a concert soloist like Andrés Segovia, Pepe Romero, Julian Bream, or Sharon Isbin, to name just a few. One does not typically bring to mind classical guitar ensembles, and especially classical guitar quartets, which aren’t very common, and have a very limited repertoire specifically composed for them. But it turns out that overlooking music performed by a classical guitar quartet is a huge and very unfortunate oversight, as demonstrated emphatically by the VIDA Guitar Quartet in a recent concert for the Jackson County Community Concert Association (JCCCA) at Medford, OR’s North Medford H.S. Auditorium on Sunday afternoon, February 22, 2016. If you find that the music of a single classical guitar can be quite beautiful, as it can, you would be astonished at what an ensemble of four of them can do, in the hands of accomplished virtuosos of the instrument. It turns out there is virtually no limit to what can be done, exquisitely, using the extensive colors, tones, timbres and dynamics of the guitar, when four of them are mixed together, as the VIDA Quartet do. I am not the first to discover this; just the most recent. Stealing a quote from Gramophone:
“VIDA’s seemingly effortless sense of ensemble and their broad range of timbres and dynamics evokes listening to an entire orchestra and not merely to four guitars. There’s only one word for it: magic.'”
The VIDA Guitar Quartet are four British, London-based guitarists, Christopher Stell and Mark Eden who have been performing as a classical guitar duo for over 25 years, plus classical guitarists Amanda Cook and Mark Ashford, who have had successful careers as classical concert soloists. In 2007, at a concert in Germany, they were inspired by a performance by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet of an arrangement of Bizet’s Carmen Suite, which was so exceptional, unique, and memorable, that it sparked a desire for them to make their own stab at performing as a guitar quartet. Shortly thereafter, they formed the VIDA Guitar Quartet and began playing to critical acclaim in UK and European venues. They chose the name, VIDA Guitar Quartet after listening to a recording of Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve (“The Short Life”) and thinking that would be a catchy name, as well as a meaningful one: “LIFE”. They made their US debut in 2011 in Los Angeles (LMU Guitar Festival) and New York (Baruch Performing Arts Centre). Since the reality is that there isn’t much repertoire written for guitar quartets, most of what they play are their own arrangements, including four pieces they played in the Medford concert: the Bach Brandenburg Concerto arranged by Mark Eden, Ralph Vaughn Williams English Folk Songs and Manuel de Falla’s dances from The Three Cornered Hat arranged by Mark Ashford, and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was a laboriously crafted three-years-in-the-making arrangement by Chris Stell. They also commission original arrangements and works just for them, such as the Nick Cartledge piece they performed in Medford that I’ll discuss later. And, not surprisingly, they perform that arrangement of Bizet’s Carmen Suite by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet’s William Kanengiser which inspired them to form a quartet in the first place.
It turns out that practically ANYTHING written for a classical ensemble can be arranged and played superbly by a capable guitar quartet as the VIDA Quartet amply and ably proved during their Medford concert. Their concert covered a wider, more diverse, interesting and appealing repertoire than any other classical ensemble I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear in concert. They offered gorgeous, near perfect performances of 18th century Bach music (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3), 19th century Bizet (Carmen Suite) and 20th century Vaughn Williams (English Folk Songs) and George Gershwin (Rhapsody In Blue), in addition to Spanish guitar sounding works by de Falla (three dances from The Three Cornered Hat) and Peter Warlock (Capriol Suite). And, as if to put an exclamation point on the affirmation that they can perform just about anything with the best of them, to top it off, they performed an absolutely wonderful commissioned-by-them arrangement by Nick Cartledge of The Great British Rock Journey, melding well over a dozen popular rock hits from the 1960’s and 70’s including works by The Who, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Queen, as well as more modern Brit sensations like Coldplay. Most of those hits were written for guitar-based bands, but never before were they heard with the rich color and texture provided by the four guitars of the VIDA Guitar Quartet. It was a triumphant performance, but not the only piece on the program to which that description could be applied.
In particular, one must single out their performance of the beloved classical, jazz-infused sensation, Rhapsody In Blue by Gershwin. Practically everyone, worldwide, is familiar with the performance that debuted the piece and made it famous, by the Paul Whitehead Band plus the composer at the piano. It is a rich, complicated, textured jazzy piece that has been tackled by most of the world’s great symphony orchestras paired with some of the greatest pianists. Who would have thought that it could be both beautifully and accurately (all the notes included) performed by a quartet of guitars? But the VIDA Guitar Quartet (aided by guitarist Chris Stell’s use of a 7 string guitar to help with some of the lower notes) did just that. Those who know me well know that Rhapsody In Blue has been a personal favorite of mine since childhood and that I am a real stickler who enjoys well-done performances of the work but gets very critical of lesser ones. I am really ecstatic, as well as a bit astonished, to pass along that this was one of the BEST performances of the work that I’ve heard in quite a while. Lest you begin to think, “this reviewer has gone nuts – he is celebrating a guitar performance of Rhapsody In Blue, of all things!”, here – have a listen for yourself; here is the last two minutes of that performance of Rhapsody In Blue in Medford:
Now do you want to try to tell me that wasn’t wonderful? And indeed, ALL of the pieces performed by the VIDA Guitar Quartet in Medford were wonderful. Though I only have the one recording from the Medford concert, I would offer you another recording, from a previous performance by the VIDA Guitar Quartet of Bizet’s Carmen Suite (yes – the piece and the Kanengiser arrangement that inspired the formation of their ensemble), which was the piece they concluded the Medford concert with. Trust me, the Medford performance of 6 popular melodies from the crowd pleasing Bizet opera, was just as good as the one captured in this recording of the Gypsy Dance (which was the finale of the six Bizet melodies performed in Medford, and hence the conclusion of the concert):
For more information about the VIDA Guitar Quartet, and their future performances, as well as recordings, visit their website at http://vidagq.com/. The VIDA Guitar Quartet was presented to the Medford audience by the the Jackson County Community Concert Association, which is enjoying a renaissance lately and now providing Southern Oregon audiences with notable concerts by remarkable artists, as well as seriously taking on the sorely overlooked task of music education in this locality of financially strapped public schools and arts deprived students.
The next concert being offered by JCCCA will be by striking, youthful piano virtuoso, Tanya Gabrielian, who previously performed in concert with the Rogue Valley Symphony in November 2014. In my review of that earlier concert, I wrote
“Ms. Gabrielian’s performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in this concert was definitely kick-ass. Strikingly tough, powerful and effective is an accurate description of Ms. Gabrielian’s delivery of the most popular French Piano concerto of all time. . . . Somehow she provided a truly muscular performance of this difficult piece, while making it look graceful. . . . When the audience made her return for a third bow to continuous applause, she sat down for an encore which was just as strikingly and overwhelmingly effective. She thrilled the audience with an extraordinary, incomparable performance of Glinka’s piano song, The Lark, which she confessed was her favorite piano piece – and just like that it became the favorite piano piece of a broad swath of the audience too.”
I can hardly wait for this next performance by Ms. Gabrielian, on March 13 at 3 pm at the North Medford HS Auditorium. Tickets are available online at http://jcconcerts.org until Feb. 29 and at the door thereafter, if there are any left (but don’t count on it). But to borrow the oft used pitchman’s phrase, “But wait there’s more!” Ms. Gabrielian, who is in so many ways an inspiration for musicians and especially young musicians, is passionate about inspiring new generations of musicians and students. And she lives her passion, acts on it not just giving lip service. So she will be giving a free performance at Medford’s Sacred Heart School on Friday afternoon, March 11, at which she will perform the same concert the public will be hearing on Sunday, March 13. At the Friday concert at the school, Ms. Gabrielian will be encouraging the students to create their own original artwork inspired by the music she performs for them. And that artwork will later be collected AND DISPLAYED AS PROJECTED ILLUSTRATIONS ACCOMPANYING HER SUNDAY PUBLIC CONCERT. Ms Gabrielian is also giving the Rogue Valley public an opportunity to support her School Outreach Projects. She will be holding a Tanya Gabrielian School Projects Fundraiser Luncheon prior to the Sacred Heart School concert at Medford’s Bambu Restaurant from 12:00 to 1:00 pm on Friday, February 11. Tickets are $375 for an individual and $500 for a couple. Donors receive the opportunity to personally meet Ms. Gabrielian and have lunch with her, as well as recognition in the March 13 concert program. For more information about the fund raising luncheon, or to purchase registration (which includes the cost of a delicious Bambu lunch) contact JCCCA president Tom Lowell by email at lowell@souedu or by phone at 541-821-3032.