Inside England’s Vida Guitar Quartet: Stretching Possibilities
L-R: Mark Ashford, Chris Stell, Amanda Cook, Mark Eden
From the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY OLLIE MCGHIE
From a veranda outside Kings Place in London, you can look out over Regent’s Canal. This stopping point, connecting the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal in the west to the Limehouse Basin in the east, is a tranquil spot where you can linger with a drink and listen to the music floating from the adjacent concert venue. It is here that I meet with the Vida Guitar Quartet, immediately following a rehearsal and prior to a special concert celebrating the relaunch of their latest album, The Leaves Be Green.
A first glance at the program for Vida’s concert tonight indicates it is decidedly English. However, suspended between Vaughan Williams and Timothy Bowers is J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major, arranged by Vida’s Mark Eden. It comes to light during our interview that the Germanic content in an otherwise all-English program is to be part of a future musical outing they have in mind. Eden, Mark Ashford, Amanda Cook, and Chris Stell are scheming ahead.
“The idea is that the next album is Bach-based,” says Stell, “with maybe some Villa-Lobos and in collaboration with some other instruments like the saxophone. We have a new commission by Howard Skempton [b.1947]. We’re going to ask him to base it around Bach. The album will be loosely based on Bach, but using the Brandenburg as our centrerpiece.”
“Basically the Bach in tonight’s concert is transitioning this launch into our next project. It’s a trailer for what’s to come,” adds Eden.
Tonight’s concert at Kings Place is part of IGF’s Guitar Summit festival. It is a celebratory launch featuring the new distributor, Launch Music International (LMI), for Vida’s album The Leaves Be Green, which originally came out in autumn 2015.
Recorded by the inestimably talented engineer John Taylor in an English church in Hertfordshire, the album is quintessentially English from top to bottom. There are bold arrangements of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, Op. 4 interspersed with pastoral pieces such as Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite and Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite.
“We like doing these big arrangements,” explains Eden. “Before we compiled this album, there was certain British repertoire that we liked doing—Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances on our previous album, Rhapsody, and the Britten. It made sense to bring the Britten together with Mark’s arrangement of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Throwing in the Warlock helped make a really well-rounded program of English music.”
“We do these big works because we love the music, and you can do them with a quartet,” Ashford adds.
“My favorite work on the album is the English Folk Song Suite,” says Cook, the most recent member to join the quartet. She replaced Helen Sanderson about two years ago. “The Suite is full of very beautiful melodies and is exquisitely constructed. The way in which Vaughan Williams weaves the folk tunes throughout the work is so fresh and interesting. It translates onto the guitars perfectly.”
The title of the album, The Leaves Be Green, comes from a piece called Fantasy on an Old English Melody (the second work on the CD) by Tim Bowers, who was Eden’s and Stell’s harmony professor at the Royal Academy of Music. The “Old English Melody” is a song by William Byrd written in the 16th century.
Eden notes, “We’re not doing these big works as some sort of circus trick—to show this is something we can do. It’s a challenge to see how we can translate the instrumentation for guitars—that’s half the process. The Gershwin [Rhapsody in Blue, on Vida’s Rhapsody CD] changed drastically in our instrumentation.”
“The wacky arrangement on The Leaves Be Green is the Elgar,” says Ashford. “It’s a bit out there, and designed to stretch the possibilities on the four guitars.”
“We use the range of colors in the tones of the guitar to try and emulate different instruments,” adds Cook.
“Doing our own arrangements gives us a much better understanding of the original material, the musical score, the instrumentation, how the piece is composed,” Eden says.
“You get closer to the music and you get much more ownership. It’s far better to do our own than buy one off the shelf and wonder why it’s slightly bizarre.”
Each member of the quartet has his or her own part, of course, but the orchestration mixes so well that it’s almost impossible to tell who plays what, especially on the album. Usually, Eden plays the top part and Stell, playing a 7-string guitar, is on the lower register. “But sometimes we swap that around to keep things fresh,” Eden says. “Our arrangements cross all the time. It’s a unique way of arranging.”
The four members of the quartet all pursue musical lives beyond Vida. Eden and Stell, who perform as the Eden-Stell Guitar Duo (and are the founders of Vida), were fresh back from the celebratory 25th Iserlohn Festival in Germany. “It was insane,” Stell comments, “like three gigs a night—manic and fantastic at the same time!” Cook plays as a soloist and had recently finished a series of recitals in Scotland. Ashford is a soloist too, with recent concerts at Chichester and Rutland. With such busy lives juggling musical careers, you would think it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them all to collaborate, but they make it work.
They all live across the south of England in Surrey, Leicestershire, and Hampshire. As a result, any rehearsal time they need outside their tour or concert schedule takes place in a shed belonging to Gerald Garcia—guitarist, composer, and leader of the National Youth Guitar Ensemble (NYGE)—which is strategically positioned in Oxfordshire.
Vida is committed to outreach and educational work, too. This is usually in tandem with concerts they give, so before or after a concert they will play a small repertoire for local schools and discuss the performance, the music, and its history. Vida are artists-in-residents for Jackdaws Music Education Trust in Frome, in Somerset, England. “We do various projects for them as a quartet and as the Eden-Stell Guitar Duo,” Stell says. “They also support our trips to the United States. We fly their baton when we’re out there in America.”
The quartet also does a lot of work in the US. “We have a really good agent,” Ashford says. “We did a showcase event for an organization called Live On Stage. We got 15 minutes to play to a whole load of presenters [concert promoters]. The idea is that you get as many concerts as possible from that. We got a three-week tour out of it. The American audience seemed to love the English repertoire!” Vida is already booked in 2017 for concerts in the US including one in February at Cornell University in upstate New York, and for the popular Guitar Marathon at 92nd St. Y in New York City. In April 2017, they will also be playing at the 25th anniversary of the Long Island [NY] Guitar Festival.
Does Cook enjoy life on the road with Vida? “Touring with the guys is like going away with three big brothers, but without the annoying habits. It’s great fun!” she says.
The end of 2016 also marks the group’s ten-year anniversary. It was in Iserlohn a decade ago that Eden and Stell first had the idea for Vida, inspired by seeing the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet in action. The name Vida, which means “life” in Spanish, was taken from the famous Spanish dance “La Vida Breve” by Manuel de Falla (adapted from his opera of the same name). Vida will celebrate its anniversary milestone with the launch of their new CD, Bachianas, featuring the aforementioned Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, playing here on Regent’s Canal, Kings Place, as part of IGF’s festival in the autumn of 2017.
“Over the last decade we have all grown as players and have been able to work instinctively on arrangements that play to our individual strengths,” Stell muses. “We have stretched the possibilities of our instrument both technically and artistically, bringing our passion for chamber music to life through a combined sense of purpose.
“Next year will see some exciting new commissions for guitar quartet, more concerts home and abroad, as well as another CD. The journey continues.”
WHAT THEY PLAY
Mark Eden plays a 2000 Christopher Dean guitar with a spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides.
Mark Ashford: 2007 Christopher Dean with a spruce top and Brazilian rosewood back and sides.
Amanda Cook: 2014 Bert Kwakkel Viscivorus, with a spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides.
Chris Stell: 2012 Christopher Dean 7-string guitar with a spruce top and back and sides made from “jaguar’s ear,” a rare type of Brazilian rosewood sometimes called “ocelot’s ear.”
Vida is a D’Addario-sponsored group and uses that company’s strings.