Class(ical) Acts: Ian O’Sullivan and William Jenks

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Who could have imagined such an inaugural season for the Hawaii International Guitar Series!  Certainly not William Jenks, its visionary founder.  Originally there were five concerts planned, to take place on Hawaii Island. But after three impressive performances in Hawi, the world suddenly ground to a halt. But the Series did not: Jenks organized not just two, but three more virtual concerts, broadcast from the artists’ homes to our own living rooms, wherever those might be.

It was fitting that the Series should end with two guitarists right here in Hawaii, Ian O’Sullivan, a native of Oahu, and William Jenks himself, at home on Big Island.

I first heard Ian O’Sullivan when he brought the classical guitar to new audiences by coming to tiny public libraries.  Perhaps twenty of us showed up at the rural Laupahoehoe School’s library; he seemed as pleased to see us as he was to see an audience of hundreds at Carnegie Hall. Classic guitar – and classic Hawaiian aloha!

Last week, the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival hosted a roundtable discussion with opera singers of color, who talked about how what is performed, who performs it, and who decides the what and who is almost entirely white/European. Classically trained artists like O’Sullivan with non-European backgrounds feel they must leave behind the musical traditions they grew up with and love.  But today, instead of conforming to old expectations, young artists are pushing the boundaries. Ian applies his classical training to Hawaiian music, expanding the possibilities of both.

In this concert, while he has an enormous repertoire, he chose an all-Hawaiian program. He doesn’t sing, but he doesn’t need to; both the melodies and the rippling undercurrent so often heard in Hawaiian music can both be played on one guitar. His own compositions follow Hawaiian tradition; whereas European songs are mostly about the love between men and women, Hawaiian songs are mostly about love of the natural beauty of specific places, love of home, of parents and grandparents. His composition, Mokule’ia, is about the place where he grew up, and the use of classical techniques enrich his music.

William Jenks (left) in a different way kept us anchored in Hawaii. Like Ian, his program was not about fireworks or technical gymnastics. Matching the calm beauty of the ocean visible behind him, his performance was understated and elegant, and the melodic works selected were played at a relaxed pace.

Beginning with some of the earliest music to be written down, he played six Pavanes, slow and stately dances by Luis de Milán from 1536, requiring an even tempo and fullness of tone.  Jumping forward to the 20th century, Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos instilled native Brazilian and indigenous music into his works for classical guitar, as Ian is doing with Hawaiian music. Jenks played his 3rd Prelude, an homage to Bach, giving the audience their Bach fix! The first Prelude brings in Latin rhythms, and the contrasting sections allowed Jenks to bring out both the brightness and the deep resonance of his instrument. Unlike earlier music, Villa-Lobos encourages the artist to interpret freely; Jenks’s use of changes in tempo and dynamics was moderate, never trying for flashiness or descending into over-exaggeration.

The familiar songs by Spaniard Francisco Tárrega, Adelita, and Lagrima, as well as Paraguayan Agustin Barrios’ Julia Florida, conveyed a sweet melancholy. And to bring us into the Christmas season, Jenks ended with two traditional favorites, one from Spain, Catalonian Song (or Song of the Virgin), and the familiar hymn, Fairest Lord Jesus. All of these short songs brought us back full circle to the simple melodies and harmonies of Hawaiian music.

In these times, spending a peaceful afternoon with these two impressive artists was a treat. Both are ambassadors of aloha with their generosity of spirit, their desire to share what they love with any and all, and friendly informality that puts everyone at ease. We look forward to what the Series will bring us in 2021!


About the author: Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

Featured image: Steve Roby

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