by James Flood, Daniel Hathaway & Mike Telin

The twelfth annual Classical Guitar Weekend was distinguished by four outstanding concerts by Pavel Steidl, Gaëlle Solal, SoloDuo and Jason Vieaux with soprano Jung Eun Oh; three excellent and informative lectures by luthier Bernhard Kresse, guitarist Jonathan Fitzgerald and record producer Alan Bise; and record audiences showed up for performances, talks and master classes over a three-day span from June 1-3 at the Cleveland Institute of Music. For the first time, Classical Guitar Weekend took on the air of a real festival chock full of delights for guitar enthusiasts as well as for music lovers in general, for which artistic director Armin Kelly deserves an up-front round of applause.

Recital by Pavel Steidl

Pavel SteidlPavel Steidl chose his Friday evening program with a particular instrument in mind: a reproduction of a nineteenth century Stauffer instrument made by Bernhard Kresse. In an interview, Kresse contrasted it to the modern guitar as “the difference between a limousine and a sports car with the same engine”. Indeed, Steidl took us on a brisk and thrilling road trip through music by Johann Kaspar Mertz, Niccolò Paganini, J.S. Bach, Fernando Sor and Zani de Ferranti, showing us how well the smaller, peppier instrument responded in the areas of color, speed, articulation and ornamentation.

Pavel Steidl is an animated performer who uses his hands, his feet and his facial expressions as well as the guitar to put the essence of the music across. The Mertz pieces featured colorful harmonies, toccata-like gestures, lyrical stretches and cheerful, humorous moments that Steidl played brilliantly and footnoted with his body motions.

On the printed page, eight two-movement sonatas interleaved with two Ghiribizzi or sketches looked like a shopping list, but in Steidl’s hands, each of Pagnini’s little pieces found its own attractive character. Steidl’s dynamic extremes, endlessly varied articulations, playful rhythms, vast palette of colors, musical chuckles and shrugs, and pickups comically isolated from their downbeats kept everything fresh and new. When high notes seemed to suspend themselves in space, Steidl looked comically at the ceiling.

I overheard some chatter from my neighbors wondering if Steidl would extend his theatrics to Bach’s famous Chaconne after intermission. Keeping a brisk, steady tempo throughout the variations, Steidl’s performance was forthright and he let the eloquence of the music speak for itself without unnecessary gestures or interpretive impositions beyond well considered dynamic contrasts. The piece came off with a cohesion and inevitability that violinists would do well to imitate.

Five little minuets by Sor cleansed the palette before de Ferranti’s Fantasie Caprice, an eventful, expressive piece with many vocal qualities. An instantaneous standing ovation followed, and Pavel Steidl gave the large audience two encores: a prelude by the wife of his teacher followed by a response of his own — an improvisatory, bluegrassy number with fancy picking, whistles and clicks that eventually vanished into silence. This was a concert that engaged the listener from beginning to end. —D.H.

Lecture by Bernhard Kresse

Bernhard Kresse, an architect turned luthier who plies his craft in Köln, Germany, gave us a fascinating look at the world of 19th century guitar making in Vienna as exemplified by the fortunes of Johann Georg Stauffer, whose fine romantic guitars and novel experiments have piqued the interest of builders ever since, and about whom a monumental new book has been recently published (it’s gorgeous and commands a price of $300!) Kresse regaled us with stories about finding old instruments at flea markets and on eBay and detailed the research which led to the building of a Stauffer copy for Pavel Steidl, who was on hand to demonstrate its capabilities at closer range than we could hear them in Mixon Hall. —D.H.

Lecture by Jonathan Fitzgerald

CIM graduate Jonathan Fitzgerald neatly compressed a year’s worth of lectures into a one-hour presentation entitled “Listening and Re-listening: Opening Your Ears to New Sounds”. His beautifully-organized PowerPoint presentation and audio clips took his audience through the various schools of post-tonal music of the past century and gave succinct advice about how both performers and audiences can get their ears around the unfamiliar: Listen and Re-listen! His comparison of unfamiliar music to acquired tastes in food and drink (think smoky, single-malt scotches, espresso and stinky blue cheeses) was priceless. —D.H.

Recital by Gaëlle Solal

Gaelle SolalGaëlle Solal presented a briliantly programmed and expertly performed recital on Saturday afternoon in Mixon Hall that was so full of spirit and energy that on a couple of occasions she literally skipped onto the stage. This exuberance, combined with her engaging commentary, added up to a most enjoyable afternoon.

Ms. Solal described her recital program as a labyrinth of stories that she hoped the audience would be surprised by as we traveled from Spain to Turkey and on to Brazil, a mix that is not usually mixable. Maybe she is right — at first glance, perhaps pairing the contemporary sounds of French composer Maurice Ohana with the classic Iberian sounds of Isaac Albeniz might seem strange, but in the hands of this very gifted French guitarist, Ms. Solal proved that opposites do indeed attract.

Ohana’s 20 Avril (Planh) is an elegy to an enemy of the Franco regime who was executed in 1963. His Tiento is a contemporary take on the time-honored Folia. The first half also included Albéniz’s Pavana Capricho and the well-known Torre Bermeja, both originally piano works. The set closed with José María Gallardo del Rey’s flamenco-inspired Aires de Seville. The odd man out was the traditional Turkish tune, Drama Köprüsü, a mesmerizing piece describing a bandit characterized as “the Turkish Robin Hood”.

The second half was dedicated to Brazilian music arranged by the performer that in the end left you feeling like you had been at Ms. Solal’s beach party. Not to say that any of this was bubble gum music — it was infectiously wonderful. Its three groups included 1) music of the composer-guitarist nicknamed Guinga, 2) Gismonti’s Palhaço and Nazareth’s Brejeiro, 3) Garoto’s Jorge do Fusa and Lamentos do Morro with the delicate Gismonti tune Agua e vinho in between. The concert closed appropriately with an invitation to a party: Marco Pereira’s Num pagode em Planaltina. This recital advanced the festival feel of Classical Guitar Weekend by incorporating an entirely different style of repertory.

Ms. Solal noted that it had taken her six years to make it to Cleveland after her first invitation. We hope she’ll return soon! —M.T.

Recital by SoloDuo

Anyone who made it to the third recital of the Classical Guitar Weekend to hear the guitar duo SoloDuo likely would have considered themselves blessed to have attended an unforgettable performance. Comprised of guitarists Lorenzo Micheli (a world-class soloist in his own right) and Matteo Mela, SoloDuo poured forth music of passion, beauty, and refinement from start to finish.

It’s hard to imagine duo-playing on any instrument getting any better than this. SoloDuo’s magic is not due merely to two classical guitarists getting together because of their formidable playing skills, but rather, due to the unlikely occurrence that two accomplished musical soul-mates happened to have met. The best way to describe their ensemble is oneness of heart and mind. Micheli and Mela share a unique musical temperament and vision, and thoroughly know each other’s playing. One gets the impression that these two don’t merely learn scores on their own and then meet to rehearse, but that their rich and supremely unified interpretations are born through many hours playing together; that it is primarily a process of discovery within these many hours, patiently allowing their conceptions to emerge.

While their performance was heart-felt, almost spiritual, they fused this spontaneity with very clear decisions regarding tone, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, and the relative importance between parts in a given section. And these were executed with perfection, along with very clean playing in general. Gorgeous and sometimes magical tone-coloring, beautiful and sensitive shaping of lines, along with a wide pallet of emotions, filled the program. Another notable quality was their remarkable consistency in plucking strings at exactly the same time. Not an easy thing in guitar duets given the plucked string’s quick attack and decay.

SoloDuo scattered throughout the program six of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 24 prelude and fugues from the Les Guitares Bien Temperées, a kind of homage to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. A composition like this should help to raise awareness of the breadth of this composer who finds little recognition today outside of the guitar world. Their performance of a transcription of Debussy’s universally-loved Clair de lune was thoroughly enchanting. Perhaps the most remarkable offering of the evening was their performance of the transcription of Bach’s keyboard dance suite, French Suite No. 5, BWV 816. SoloDuo played breathlessly through the first 6 movements allowing a break between each movement of what seemed at the most one second. Their interpretation was intense and varied, lively and natural. Their concluding work, Giuliani’s Variations Concertantes was met with an enthusiastic standing ovation, as was their encore of Piazzolla. —J.F.

Lecture by Alan Bise

As classical producer for Cleveland’s Azica records, Alan Bise is in a unique position to talk about “The Recording Process: From Artistic Vision to Retail Sale”, a no-nonsense lecture that put real prices on every step of the way from concept to distribution but was also full of colorful anecdotes about the vagaries of finding recording venues and conducting sessions. Count on spending (or raising) about $15,000 if a CD is one of your dreams, and be very, very prepared when you step in front of the microphones. (On the way to Bise’s lecture, we stopped to admire — but not touch — an exhibit of contemporary classical guitars from makers around the world from the sale collection of Guitars International). —D.H.

Recital by Jason Vieaux and Jung Eun Oh

As is customary, Classical Guitar Weekend ended with a recital by Cleveland’s (and CIM’s) own Jason Vieaux. Pride of place, but it can be a tough assignment to play at the end of a long weekend of guitar music. Vieaux dispelled the possibility of any musical fatigue with his decision to feature music by John Dowland and Benjamin Britten linked by Britten’s Nocturnal, and to invite soprano Jung Eun Oh along for a set of Dowland lute songs as well as two groups of Britten songs.

Vieaux opened with a well-voiced, healthy-sounding performance of Dowland’s seventh fantasia, then joined Oh in amiable readings of Can she excuse my wrongs; Flow, my tears; Come again, sweet love; and Come, heavy sleep.

The last Dowland song is the basis for Britten’s Nocturnal, but the composer deconstructs it in eight variations before the whole song appears at the end. It’s rather chilling music — musings about death from an insomniac — and Jason Vieaux played it with stunning expressiveness and a fine sense of pace.

After intermission, Vieaux and Oh teamed up again for Britten’s Songs from the Chinese and six folk song arrangements, separated by two virile and colorful dances from a non-doleful Dowland, Queen Elizabeth’s Galliard and My Lady Hunsdon’s Alman.

Both Britten groups were delightful settings of bits of poetry, sometimes humorous, often epigrammatic, and redolent of the composer’s skill at marrying diatonic tunes with quirky accompaniments. Some inspired chuckles and sometimes outright laughs from the audience. Ms. Oh sang them beautifully with an unerringly clear tone, though crisper diction would have helped the words to come across without having to consult the program insert.

Keep your eyes out for a recording of this repertory — we understand that Jason Vieaux is thinking Britten for his next CD project. —D.H.

Published on ClevelandClassical.com June 6, 2012.

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