BY MARK SMALL
On October 20, 2016, at the University of Denver’s Newman Center, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet gave the world premiere of Road to the Sun, a new work they commissioned from jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny. The piece runs about 30 minutes and is quintessential Metheny from start to finish, yet perfectly adapted to classical guitar quartet rather than a jazz quartet.
Road to the Sun is in six movements that are not given individual titles, with some movements segueing seamlessly into the next. The title refers a trip Metheny made to Glacier National Park’s scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road the day after hearing the LAGQ perform live a few years ago.
Those familiar with the multi-Grammy-winning guitarist’s work will hear echoes of music he has penned during his 41-year recording career in the sometimes wistful harmonies, catchy melodies, dramatic dynamic shifts, fleet-fingered lines, and energetic strumming.
Metheny told students from the University of Denver during a Q&A session the afternoon before the premiere that he never had formal guitar lessons, and that while composing he generally doesn’t dwell much on the mechanics of guitar playing. He often writes at the piano, but took a decidedly guitar-centric approach for this piece. In the program notes, he stated, “The thought of really addressing the instrument [guitar] in a more formal way under the auspices of what this quartet has come to embody, not to mention the sheer, almost overwhelming individual skills of the four players, was something I really wanted to do.”
Metheny conferred with members of the quartet during writing phase and ultimately tailored the parts to highlight the strengths and timbral characteristics of each LAGQ member. In a pre-concert talk, the composer revealed that he kept a chart in front of him as he worked, featuring each player’s picture and details that co-founder John Dearman provided to him about their individual styles.
Classical guitarists may be surprised at the number of idiomatic devices from the classical guitar domain that Metheny deployed in the piece. He included passages of melodic tremolo like that found in Recuerdos de la Alhambra, as well as arpeggiated chords and linear arpeggios traversing the guitar neck á la Villa Lobos Etude 2. Metheny featured various types of strumming, including rapid flutter-strums on the high strings with the index finger reminiscent of those found in Sakura Variations by Yuquijiro Yocoh, but he cautioned the players to avoid flamenco-style strumming. The work also spotlighted ensemble interplay with the trading of improvised-sounding lines that hinted at blues and jazz.
A major feature of Metheny’s work is his gift for musical narrative and storytelling. This piece certainly takes the listener on a journey that visits many sonic vistas and valleys. Following the energetic fifth movement, Road to the Sun closes introspectively with an epilogue recapping a melancholic theme from the first movement before drifting into silence.
Throughout the piece, the members of LAGQ played with characteristic grace and virtuosity, which masked the difficulty of the music. Dearman stated that the length and dramatic scope of the piece placed it among the most challenging works LAGQ has yet tackled. Bill Kanengiser called Metheny’s latest opus, “a major addition to the guitar quartet repertoire.” The group gave three performances of the work in the fall of 2016 and plans to record it in the fall of 2017. Road to the Sun will be a central part of LAGQ’s program during their 2017–2018 season.