BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
Matt Withers is perfectly emblematic of the new generation of players who are eagerly embracing the artistic and commercial opportunities that playing in chamber situations offers to guitarists. Besides being a ten-year member of the quite extraordinary and adventurous quartet Guitar Trek (founded and led by Australian classical guitar advocate/mentor-to-many Tim Kain), as well the Brew Guitar Duo (with Bradley Kunda; also in Guitar Trek), Withers has played in numerous different mixed instrument combinations through the years, including guitar-violin-cello, guitar-flute, voice-and-guitar, guitar-clarinet, guitar-harp,“and even guitar-steel pan, featured at the World Expo in Shanghai,” he says. And, over the past year, he has worked extensively in a quintet with Australia’s Acacia String Quartet, playing prestigious venues across the enormous continent, and also recording an exceptional new double-album together, called Imaginations, featuring all-Australian composers; it was released on ABC Classics at the end of January. At the same time, in 2018 he expanded his Matt Withers Australian Music Composition Competition (started in 2014) to incorporate new original pieces for guitar-and-string-quartet, and three of the works on the new album come from contestants in the competition. In all, eight of the ten compositions are world premiere recordings; three feature Acacia alone, one is solo guitar.
Although touring and his numerous album releases have increased Withers’ worldwide profile, it’s abundantly clear that first and foremost his heart and soul are committed to promoting Australian musicians and composers. His main formal guitar education has been Down Under—he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Australian National University School of Music in Canberra, where he studied with Kain, and he’s taught extensively in that area himself, spending several years as Head of Guitar at the University of Canberra, and also a decade working as a tutor at Canberra Grammar School. He has long championed the works of Australian composers, including such notables as Richard Charlton, Nigel Westlake, and the late Phillip Houghton. But the Imaginations project with Acacia Quartet is unquestionably his most ambitious—and important—undertaking to date.
Withers says that he and the quartet—Lisa Stewart, first violin; Myee Clohessy, second violin; Stefan Duwe, viola; and Anna Martin-Scrase, cello—are kindred spirits “who share my passion for generating and promoting new Australian music. I find performing and collaborating with likeminded friends a real pleasure.”
So they were all-in when Withers decided to expand his annual composition competition to works for the quintet configuration—“what many see to be the foremost chamber ensemble combination. Entries were aplenty and the quality was high,” he reports. Adding interest to the process was the fact that “all composers—entrants and Richard Charlton, Australia’s esteemed guitar composer, who we commissioned a work from—based their works on images by Queensland visual artist Sue Needham,” who specializes in watercolor seascapes and landscapes (and also supplied the cover painting for Withers’ most recent solo album, the pleasingly melodic Songs of Yesterday). “A trilogy set called Stormy Seashore gave composers a thematic guide without strict restrictions, except for timing and instrumentation,” Withers notes. One of the ocean watercolors appears on the cover of the album, and a quick perusal of the titles of some of the pieces shows that the entrants took her inspiration to heart: Shorelines, Charlton’s wonderfully diverse, three-movement contribution; first place-winner Wade Gregory’s Water Music, also in three parts (“Clouds,” “River,” Ocean”) and displaying prominent Brazilian colorations; second place finisher Rick Alexander’s marvelously varied “Storming”; and the evocative “Solitude,” by Nava Ryan, who was part of the Under 25/Emerging Composer program. Another piece, by Robert Davidson, takes its name from a Needham painting called Forest.
Landing the Charlton premiere was particularly satisfying to Withers: “His solo and chamber works have been recorded by so many and are spread throughout the national Australian syllabus—AMEB. I’ve been performing his works since I first began learning guitar, so for me, Richard was an obvious choice for a new commission and he was very excited to write for the combination—instrumentation he had wanted to write for for years.”
It’s difficult to generalize about the character of the music on the album because it delves into so many different moods and colors. Within every piece there are multiple melodies, counter-melodies, and harmonies, along with numerous rhythm and tempo changes, and all the instruments in the quintet are given plenty of opportunities to shine, as their roles shift and evolve in a given piece. There are passages that soar on the wings of strings, and others where the guitar provides the main melodic thrust. A slow, contemplative cello line might be played against skittering strings; another piece might have exciting rasgueado-like strumming or a playful violin pizzicato. There are certainly some neo-Romantic elements here and there in the writing, though it is neither pastoral nor maudlin. There is also a rich, vivid, cinematic quality to several of the pieces—modern but rarely abstract; always tonal, but often unpredictable. It is a “sea” of contrasts. Still, a melody—brightly expressed or gently whispered—is never very far away in these appealing but still challenging and virtuosic works. It’s easy to imagine several of these pieces being embraced by other high-level chamber groups.
“The varied repertoire on the album for the quintet combination takes many different forms,” Withers comments. “In some cases, the composers had the guitar playing melodic lines while the strings provided the backing harmonies; other times the guitar was the arpeggiated harmony underneath melodies being passed around between the quartet; while other pieces still used various effects, colors, and timbres to depict soundscapes of landscapes and seascapes.”
I asked Withers whether he or the Acacia players took much of a role in shaping the pieces before recording them. “As with any works that we, as instrumentalists, get our fingers into, Acacia Quartet and I refined each of the works we performed and recorded. For example, occasionally we ended up feeling comfortable at tempos either slightly faster or slower than marked by the composers if we felt that suited the music to bring out melodic lines or to feel the groove of the music a little more. Some of this was done in discussion with the composers, but not always. Some notes between the quartet were exchanged for clarity of lines, and the guitar fingering of melodies was chosen by me for the tone that I wanted to take—whether more open and bright, or in higher positions and warmer.”
The album was recorded by top Australian engineer Bob Scott (who also worked on Withers’ previous two albums), with all but one track coming from three days of sessions in September 2018 at Electric Avenue Studios in Sydney. The chemistry among the five is palpable throughout, honed by many hours of practice, recording, and a series of live performances together, including two in Canberra and one at the Melbourne Guitar Festival.
Of the group’s tour together, Withers says it was “rehearsing, lunches, photoshoots, dinners, drinks, fun with friends; amazing musicians—the way touring should be.” Onstage, “We sat in semicircle formation: violin one, violin two, guitar, viola, cello. I was performing on a  Smallman & Sons guitar with amplification. I used a condenser pencil microphone with a small Roland amp for a light boost of the guitar. I believe this would be essential for any type of guitar, and was EQd in a way that everyone I spoke to on the concert tour thought it was a lovely, natural balance between the instruments.
“Our rehearsals highlighted the differences between fretted and non-fretted instruments in regards to tuning,” he continues. “As it was not possible to alter my fretted notes’ pitch during performance, it was left to the wonderful talents of Acacia Quartet to fine-tune the intonation of various harmonic changes. Of course, as experienced musicians who regularly perform with equal temperament, they were extremely comfortable adjusting.”
In the next year, Withers will be getting back together with his mates in Guitar Trek to record a new album and play some performances, and he will also continue his occasional work fronting orchestras around Australia. Not surprisingly, too, his plans will include the Acacia Quartet.
“This project has been such a joy to develop, delving into the notes and rhythms of the new music,” he says of the quintet’s work together. “We’re already planning and dreaming of future concerts in 2019 and beyond, touring this music and other great repertoire. Performing and recording this music has excited not just our audiences, but also each of us as well. Promoting new Australian music is what we’re all about.”
(The album can purchased from Matt Withers directly, or streamed and/or purchased through iTunes/Apple Music, or streamed on Spotify or YouTube. )