By Blair Jackson
Last night (Jan. 14), the opening concert at the 3rd International Guitar Competition and Festival Maurizio Biasini, held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, offered an incredibly entertaining and adventurous program that included two world premieres and a can’t-miss favorite from the early 19th century.
The impressively large crowd that turned out on a cold, rainy evening to fill much of the gorgeous Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall settled in with a crisp and energetic rendition of Mauro Giuliani’s Guitar Concerto No. 1 in A major, Op. 30, featuring Chilean guitarist Cristóbal Selamé (currently studying at SFCM under Sergio Assad) fronting a flawless 14-piece string ensemble of SFCM alumni, conducted with both vim and sensitivity by Nicole Paiement. Giuliani’s concerto, written around 1812, during his years in Vienna, is a wonderful piece of classical writing, with plenty for the guitarist to do—no surprise given Giuliani’s reputation as one of the great guitarists of his era. Selamé appeared to have no trouble negotiating the speedy passages in the first and third movements, and handled the middle Andantino with great feeling and delicacy. He, Paiement, and the orchestra were locked tightly together through to the lively finale.
The next piece on the program was the first of the two intriguing world premieres, Javier Farías’ Nazcan. The Chilean composer, who has won numerous awards for his guitar and chamber works, says he wrote Nazcan in tribute to Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, using parts of his “history-dream poem” Clarivigilia Primaveral (Clear Vigil in Spring) as a critical element in the piece. Indeed, two narrators—each flanking the eight-piece SFCM Guitar Ensemble, conducted by Guitar Department chair (and Biasini Competition artistic director) David Tanenbaum)—read parts of Asturias’ poem in English and Spanish to accompany the music, which ranged from rhythmically insistent passages to more lyrical excursions (and also included the guitarists adding percussive beats on their chests and some vocalizations). It’s a bracing and evocative piece that offers much food for thought, both musically and lyrically.
After the intermission came the premiere of Brazilian composer Clarice Assad’s O Saci-Pererê, which brought back the entire string ensemble from the Giuliani piece, but also added small groups of brass, woodwind, and percussion to the mix for this three-part work, conducted by Paiement. In her notes about the piece, Assad explains that the Saci-Pererê is a one-legged, forest-dwelling, magical being from popular Brazilian mythology, known for his volatility, his prankster spirit, and his ability to transform himself into a songbird. That was the impetus for the piece, and each of the three movements—medium, slow, and fast—reflects a different aspect of the creature’s personality. Assad’s piece was bold, exciting, and completely unpredictable.
Is it fair to think of the guitar part—beautifully played by Marc Teicholz (a current member of the SFCM faculty)—as the embodiment of Saci-Pererê, while the surrounding orchestration describes fanciful and strange settings and adventures? Too literal, no doubt. Whatever the case, it was easy to be swept up in its ever-shifting rhythms and tempos, the great clashing peaks, interesting passages where, say, a pairing of bassoon and viola suddenly dominate for a few seconds, or a large standing drum adds muffled booms, or the guitar part seems to almost fly off the neck in free-flight. This one also used the orchestra in unusual ways, with parts where the musicians stamped their feet rhythmically in unison—sounding a bit like a flamenco dancer—or a musical line would
have a strong undercurrent of unintelligible whispering, then muttering. It was unquestionably bizarre in places, but always highly musical and definitely compelling. Some of it had the sweeping grandeur of a great film score (though usually with some odd twist thrown in); other sections were most mysterious. Teicholz was really challenged on this one—the guitar part requires incredible dexterity and rhythmic assurance—but he seemed in complete control throughout, and when he brought the piece to its close, he (and everyone onstage) was rewarded with a sustained standing ovation from the appreciative crowd.
This is precisely the sort of adventurous and involving piece the guitar repertoire needs more of. I hope other orchestras will take a chance on it.