By Blair Jackson

Sitting in my front-row seat waiting for the start of Alvaro Pierri‘s greatly anticipated GFA spotlight concert at the Little Theatre on Thursday evening (June 22), I idly perused the program printed in the GFA’s 120-page convention book to see what the guitarist would be playing. It looked like an interesting and well-balanced program—a piece by English Renaissance composer Thomas Robinson, a Sor sonata, a contemporary piece by Canadian composer Jacques Hétu (the Uruguayan Pierri has spent much time in Montreal through the years), Rodrigo’s Sonata Española, Bogdanovic’s Jazz Sonatina, and a pair of works by his countryman Abel Carlevaro.

But when Pierri came onstage at the appointed time, he explained he was going to change “a couple of things” in  the program. He hadn’t been feeling well: “A recommendation to my colleagues,” he said quietly, “Please don’t eat the food on the plane,” adding, “Maybe I am less a couple of kilos now,” and then he chuckled. So I presumed the program changes were to accommodate his diminished health in some way. He did appear a little pale and unsteady at first, but once he started playing, anything that ailed him was clearly brushed to the side, and he was truly magnificent. And he didn’t just change “a couple” of pieces in the program; he changed everything! In place of the Robinson dances, he played a courtly fantasia by Francesco da Milano (similar era, at least), with his guitar capo’d at the fourth fret, and sounding honey-sweet. The planned Sor sonata gave way to Paganini’s Grand Sonata, Pierri’s fingers dancing with apparent ease up and down the fretboard, and then Sor had his day, as Pierri unfurled a splendid take on the demanding Grand Solo, Op. 14. He closed the first half with a pair folk dances from the Rio de la Plata region of Uruguay, the second a relentless, driving piece that had Pierri strumming furiously with his knuckles up the neck at one point.

There’s s something intangible and indescribable that the best guitarists are able to achieve—where the music is so much a part of them, so completely internalized, that it appears to flow out of the fingers of its own volition, transcending intention; a place beyond thought where the music plays them in a way; it is received. I felt this strongly watching Pierri, who seemed so locked-in when he was playing, especially in the program after the intermission, which which was entirely Latin and Spanish. He opened with Manuel Maria Ponce’s Sonata #3 (the last piece Pierri announced by title for the rest of the concert!), and followed that with one cherished Spanish gem after another, including Albéniz’s Sevilla and Torroba’s Sonatina, all rendered impeccably and passionately. The fast runs were both mellifluous and rhythmically on-point, and during the quiet passages, it seemed you could hear the attack and decay of every single note, and even feel the silences between them. You could sense the rapt audience hanging on every moment, swept away by the guitarist’s magical touch. The warm glow in the room when he was finished was palpable. If anyone was disappointed that Pierri didn’t play the program as advertised, I’d be very surprised. This night is going to stay with me for a long time.

Digging into the vaults, here’s Pierri in 1994 playing Torroba’s Sonatina:

Bach, Dyens … and Flamenco caliente
The two guitarists who each had a 45-minute slot at Friday’s late-morning concert at the Little Theatre were completely different in approach and repertoire. First up was the much-traveled and respected Tal Hurwitz, who (completely coincidentally) picked up where Alvaro Pierri had left off, the previous night, opening his performance with another of the Spanish classics: Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra, always emotional if played well, as it was here. (In general, I’d say there was less of the “standard repertoire” at the concerts I saw this year at GFA. At another guitar festival I attended two years ago, I heard Asturias four times in two days and Recuerdos twice. There are certainly worse fates, however.) Hurwitz then devoted the rest of his time to two multi-movement pieces: Bach’s Violin Sonata No 2 in A minor, BWV 1003—uplifting and nearly perfect in its precision and rhythmic surety—and Dyens’ Libra Sonatine, which is all over the map stylistically, with a few bluesy bent notes, dashes of frenetic jazz, charming melodic parts, and a certain unpredictability and playfulness characteristic of the much-missed composer.

Tal Hurwitz plays the “Prelude” from Bach’s BWV 996:

By contrast, Marija Temo’s program was heavily rooted in the flamenco tradition, though she certainly puts her own spin on it. She played one straight classical guitar piece, but mostly showcased her formidable flamenco guitar chops and her singingher voice is a commanding instrument, with incredible power and control; it wells up from a place deep inside her and then seems to burst out of her small frame. It was a stirring performance, capped by her “flamenco-ized” (her word) arrangement of of the Paraguayan National Folk Song, Pajaro Chogui. Very entertaining.

Marija Temo. Photo: Kenneth Kam for GFA

Crazy Nails Slay Crowd in Premiere!
Those of us “of a certain age” (as we oldish folks like to say) might remember a popular Danish/American musician of the ’50s and early ’60s named Victor Borge, who was a concert-level pianist who found his fame and fortune by parodying classical music, deftly turning famous pieces (Flight of the Bumblebee, Beethoven’s Fifth; you name it) inside out and mocking the stylistic quirks of the piano gods of the day, from Rubenstein to Van Cliburn. He was a frequent guest on the top TV variety shows of the day, and you didn’t have to be a classical music fan to get the jokes. A decade later, Peter Schickele appeared on the scene as P.D.Q. Bach (1807–1742?), giving Baroque music a hilarious makeover. In the ’70s, The Rutles did a number on The Beatles, and in the ’80s Spinal Tap parodied heavy metal so well it was hard to tell the joke from the real thing!

Well, now the classical guitar world has Crazy Nails—(seriously skilled) French guitarists Boris Gaquere and Gaëlle Solal, in collaboration with a co-writer/stage director/coach named Henry Debay—who premiered their slightly under one-hour stage extravaganza before a standing-room-only crowd at the Little Theatre that whooped and whistled and cheered every antic parody the duo unleashed during what I’m reasonably sure was the wildest thing ever to grace a GFA stage. It started out normally, with the duo seated onstage, playing some Vivaldi. OK, nice. Then all hell brook loose! They jettisoned the chairs, attached straps to their Jean-Luc Joie guitars, and began roaming the stage playing the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Though unusual, this was certainly not the first time classical guitarists had stood with their instruments (see the Katona Twins, et al). But midway through the tune the true nature of this act started to emerge—they jockeyed for position at the front of the stage, each stepping in front of the other to hog the spotlight, and when Boris started whistling his “bird” accompaniment (ala Paul McCartney on the “White Album” original), Gaëlle puffed her cheeks and tried to answer with her own whistle, but kept failing to blow out more than air. If memory serves, that then morphed into a lively version of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” with more dancing about and carrying on. Throughout, Gaëlle would speak to the audience in French and Boris would translate into English (though later that flipped).

Next, to prove to the GFA crowd that they could play straight classical guitar without leaping around, they pulled out chairs again, did  some exaggerated finger, hand and arm flexing, and started playing some Mozart (I think…)—completely stone-faced, without moving a single facial muscle. Soon, though, each was mugging furiously, going through every face—the closed eyes, the grimaces, rolling their heads; just spot-on, and the crowd ate it up. It was knowing parody, from two guitarists who have seen it all in their years on the circuit. There were a number of other funny bits, too, including a version of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” in which  Gaëlle tried to play guitar and do ballet at the same time (pretty graceful, actually); a routine in which the duo pretended to be on a plane, packed close together in their seats, and still trying to play their guitars without smacking into the other; a number where they put their guitars across their laps and played them koto-style, all the while muttering to the crowd and each other in Japanese (or maybe mock-Japanese; I couldn’t tell you); a funny sketch for which Gaëlle donned sweat bands around her head and wrists and Boris was her helfpul and encouraging “coach” (with stopwatch, towel and water bottle) as she gamely attempted to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” in record time; and even a send-up on the playful four-hands-on-one-guitar gimmick that some duos play. Boris’ turn as a corny lounge singer was tad long (and not that original in this country, where lounge lizards have been parodied for years, from Bill Murray to Andy Kaufman), but was still well-done. Much better was Boris’ parody of an over-the-top flamenco cantaor, straining  hard (and hilariously) to hit the notes as Gaëlle accompanied on guitar. (I couldn’t help but think of the fine performance I’d seen by Marija Temo earlier in the day; I ran into her that night and she said she loved the Crazy Nails parody!)

The joke is on us! Crazy Nails: Boris Gaquere and Gaëlle Solal. Photo: Kenneth Kam for GFA

No one is safe from this mocking duo! Their final encore was a “straight” performance of the second movement of Ravel’s Concerto pour piano en sol, as if to show us they were more than just clowns. They didn’t need to do that (it was obvious throughout what strong players they are), but it was a nice, calm way to end the often-frantic program.

I was laughing nearly every second of Crazy Nails’ performance, and so was much of the audience. If this was a truly their debut, it was nothing short of a triumph! Any guitar festival would be lucky to have these folks brighten the mood of their events with this fun, light-hearted show. Don’t miss it if it comes to your town!

Lastly, here’s a photo of a common scene around GFA this week: The young NPA Quartet from Flagstaff, Arizona, practices outside before the ensemble competition:

 Next: Solo Duo, competition winners, and more!

Click here to read Part 1 Part 2, and Part 4 of our GFA coverage.