If the list on the European Guitar Quartet website it accurate, the group’s concert in San Francisco on Saturday, March 18, 2017 was just their 39th performance since they first got together in 2012, and only their second in America—the first, In New York City, was two nights before; following are/were three in Los Angeles March 24-26, and one in Chicago April 1. It’s too bad they don’t play more often, because they put on a truly delightful show that would certainly have wide appeal. It’s a terrific lineup of superb players: Czech guitar wonder Pavel Steidl (one of my favorite players), Zoran Dukic of Croatia (currently living in Barcelona), and a pair of highly respected German musicians, Thomas Fellow and Reentko Dirks. They possess an easy and palpable chemistry, as if their union is instinctual rather than learned, and though each is clearly a virtuoso in his own right, no one is trying to upstage the others; indeed they seem deferential to one another, gleefully passing around the flashier solo passages among them.
The word “gleefully” in that last sentence is descriptive of the quartet’s overall mien. With Fellow acting as the de facto host for the evening—he stood up from time to time to tell stories about some of the pieces, make jokes about the players, and generally guide us through the repertoire in a light and self-effacing manner; clearly this is a group that does not take it itself too seriously. They all traded smiles and fond glances throughout the evening; and an arched eyebrow or the nod of a chin could serve as an unspoken cue. Having seen Pavel Steidl perform previously, I was already attuned to his pixie-ish stage personality—the exaggerated grimaces, the rolling eyes, his lips sometimes mouthing the intricate fast rhythms of what his fingers are playing, like some scatting jazzbo. His cheery antics would be right at home on a rock music stage, but we’re lucky to have him in the classical-guitar world, because he’s an amazingly fluid and soulful player, as “serious” as he is playful; a lovable rascal, perhaps. He seemed to have a special connection to Dukic, who matched his spirit and soloing flair throughout the evening.
Of the 11 pieces the group performed, nine can be found on the EGQ’s wonderful 2014 CD, Danza, which I purchased after the show and completely adore. It’s magnificently recorded by Matt Buschendorf (and produced by Fellow) and really captures the group’s verve and virtuosity in equal measures. (The one from the CD they did not play is the gorgeous Reentko ballad Farewell. The two they played that are not on the disc were 43 Ghiribizzi by Paganini, a solo showcase by Steidl that opened the second half in fine style; and a pairing of Miroslav Tadic’s tuneful Macedonian Girl and lively Walk Dance, published together along with a third piece, but independent). Three Piazzolla works were spread throughout, with the moody Verano Porteño probably the best-known (though I had not heard a quartet version before). Fugo y misterio has a sort of Bach-in-Buenos Aires vibe in its first section, whereas Concerto para quinteto (or quartet in this case) ranges from lovely and lyrical Spanish passages to light and breezy rhythmic jaunts that took me back to the harbor-side cafés in Cassis, France, where I sipped pastis in the late afternoon sun last summer.
Fellow introduced three pieces he wrote about powerful women from the ancient world/ mythology: Agrippina, featuring just Fellow and Steidl, imagines the last thoughts of a famous/notorious Roman empress who killed her husband so her son could be emperor, and later was ordered murdered by said son; Penelope, played by Fellow and Reentko, explores the feelings of the wife of Ulysses, waiting for the great adventurer to return to Greece; and Medusa, performed by Fellow, Reentko, and Dukic, tries to capture the existential loneliness of the otherwise murderous snake-haired demoness. (Needless to say, the wild-haired Duckic was an easy target for Fellow in his introduction for the piece). Reentko also had two of his works featured: Rafa is a zippy, exciting, highly rhythmic workout inspired by Spanish tennis great Rafael Nadal, of all people; and the concert-ending Danza non Danza was another rhythmically intoxicating number with some obvious nods to flamenco, and solos joyfully traded around before leading up to a big climax. I should also note that on several pieces Reentko supplied spicy rhythms beating on the guitar body, and also seemed to be supplying the “bass” parts more than the others.
The other piece that was performed was Dusan Bogdanovic’s Introduction and Dance, which moves from the lilting melodicism of the “intro,” to the “dance,” which fuses a jazzy sort of Gershwin-esque passage with some more Balkan/Middle Eastern textures; it a superb bit of writing that really goes to some very interesting places in under six minutes. It was played with same exuberance that marked every other piece the group tackled.
Last, but not least, a word about the setting for this concert. The Green Room sits on the second floor of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, a stately, 1930s beaux-arts building next door to the San Francisco Opera and across the street from San Francisco City Hall, which was bathed in green lights for St. Patrick’s Day (the day before the concert). The building also houses the Herbst Theatre on floor one, where Omni Concerts has staged several classical guitar concerts. The Green Room, which almost looks like it could be a chamber in Versailles or some other opulent European palace, was being renovated for the past five years, and this was the first time a classical-guitar concert had been staged there since it reopened. Choosing the European Guitar Quartet to “christen” this room ended up being a perfect choice. The concert was sponsored by the D’Addario Foundation in association with the Omni Foundation; good folks all!