Kazuhito Yamashita always seems to be pushing the creative envelope. Whether it’s his brilliant guitar arrangements of incredibly difficult classical works, such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Stravinsky’s Firebird, or Dvorák’s New World symphony; recording the complete works of Fernando Sor on 16 CDs; or performing all six Bach lute suites in a single day (as I saw him do in San Francisco in 2015); he clearly enjoys making a BIG statement, and he is such a spectacularly talented virtuoso, there doesn’t seem to be anything that is beyond his reach.
So there was no way I was going to miss his return to San Francisco on November 17, 2018, at the beautiful Taube Atrium Theater, a modern 300-seat venue built into an architecturally ornate space on the fourth floor of the beaux-arts Veteran’s Building, across the street from San Francisco City Hall. This was the first time the Omni Foundation for the Arts had staged a concert there (they often produce events in the historic 800-seat Herbst Theater on the first floor of the same building), and everyone I spoke with after the nearly sold-out show raved about the sightlines, the acoustics, and comfort level of the Taube. Once again Yamashita treated San Francisco to a special program: This time it was Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 24 Caprichos de Goya, performed in order, 12 in each half of the concert. This was new for me, but not for Yamashita—he introduced and often performed that program way back in 1989, the same year he recorded them. (Others who have recorded the complete Caprichos include Lily Afshar, Frank Bungarten, and Zoran Dukic.)
The inspiration for Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s sprawling, multi-layered 1961 work is Francisco Goya’s famous late 18th century collection of 80 bitingly satirical and darkly cynical etchings known as Los Caprichos (the caprices and follies of Spanish society; particularly the rich). The composer selected 24 to “interpret,” and as Yamashita performed each section (ranging in length from about two minutes to a little more than six minutes), the corresponding etching (with title in Spanish and English) was projected onto a 25-foot screen behind the guitarist—a great way to connect Goya’s vision with Castenuovo-Tedesco’s music, which covers an incredibly broad range of styles, moods, and tempos. Classic Spanish flavors mingle with light, humorous, mocking passages, elegant balladry, dark diversions, and modern-sounding eruptions.
Yamashita rolled across this varied, interesting, and quite challenging terrain with a true maestro’s confidence and sensitivity, as well as unparalleled skill and style: Few other guitarists display as much overt physicality onstage. Is he showboating when his right arm suddenly does a little windmill motion, or when he smoothly push/pulls the guitar off to his extreme right side? I don’t think so. It feels to me as though he’s just wringing every ounce of emotion out of each phrase, and sometimes that calls for a larger arsenal of motions. Showmanship or not, it’s exciting to see this supreme artist’s commitment to each moment.
It’s a testament to Yamashita’s deserved reputation as one of the best players in the world that a veritable who’s who of Bay Area classical guitar professionals (and students) were on hand to see Goya’s and Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Caprichos brought so vividly and compellingly to life. I suspect many of them will be talking about this concert for a long time. I know I will.
I couldn’t find any video of Yamashita playing the Caprichos, but here’s audio of the dazzling complete album he recorded: