We live on a tiny dot in an enormous ocean, in small mostly rural communities. How lucky we are then to have world-renowned musicians come to us! This year, US Classic Guitar, led by William Jenks, inaugurated a Hawaii International Guitar Series in Hawi, with the performances set in the welcoming informality of the Simpson family’s home against a backdrop of undulating water and shifting cloud formations. It’s like we died and went to heaven!
While music for guitar has been written for centuries, with Bach’s compositions still a foundational part of the repertoire including for Virginia Luque, the second artist to perform in the Series, classical guitar is today most commonly associated with music from Spain. The compositions of 19th-century Romantic composers, Tarrega, Albeniz, and Granados are most familiar to us, and Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia is considered the foremost classical guitarist of our time. Luque, who is herself from Spain, was Segovia’s last private student and protege studying with him while she was still a child. She is best known for her classical and flamenco playing in the Spanish Romantic style. At the Hawi concert, she played one piece from each of those three composers, and also one from another familiar name in classical guitar, 20th-century Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla.
However, Luque’s program focused more on the music of three contemporary artists, Argentinian Jorge Morel, Cuban Leo Brouwer (these two are also her friends – and her fans) and herself! All are world-class performers as well as composers.
Morel’s Danza Brasilera, is based on the Brazilian Samba, a highly percussive dance that has its origins in the rhythms brought to Brazil by enslaved West Africans. The slaps on the guitar imitate the footwork in the dance; that guitar technique is also used in flamenco guitar, and is also featured in Morel’s “Estampas Latinas,” or Latin impressions, in which we hear the intricate and rapid foot-stomping dance style of the Malambo, developed by the gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) hundreds of years ago.
Brouwer enchants and challenges in a different way. “Cantilena do los Bosques,” or song of the forest, is a tone poem, with a deceptively simple three-note melody, where the guitar’s clarity and depth of tone create the feeling of quietude in the heart of a forest. In contrast, his Danza de Medianoche, written for Luque, is full of obvious technical brilliance. Was he challenging her to prove that only someone as skilled as she could navigate those unusual and rapidly changing chord progressions, lightning runs, and sudden changes of rhythm while still maintaining musicality? She delivers!
Virginia Luque’s own compositions prove that she has and will add more staples to the classical guitar repertoire. Her “Abstract Tango,” in which she gives the listener the “feel” of a tango without the tango itself, will undoubtedly be picked up by others anxious to prove their own mettle. Some of her pieces tell little stories, sometimes with humor. “El Campanario,” a piece she premiered here in Hawi, charmingly evokes the church bells in a little town in all their simplicity. In “Viaggio,” we’re on a train, and we hear it whistle as it runs down the tracks. It was an honor to hear new pieces premiered, both ones she commissioned to bring attention to Morel and Brouwer, and also the ones she wrote herself.
Throughout the evening, she pulled on our hearts like puppet strings, evoking emotional states that shifted like the clouds outside the window, through her use of changing dynamics and tempi, varying speeds of vibrato, and her ability to pull out every last sound wave in a single slow note. Many of the pieces were mostly in a minor key, but included shifts into major keys, from pathos to joy, darkness to laughter, confusion to resolution. Unlike her mentor Segovia and many other classical guitarists, Luque does not use her nails to pluck the strings, instead of using her fingertip pads. While some claim you can achieve more technical virtuosity using your nails, Luque certainly exhibited no reduced speed or less ability to play tremolo, and perhaps using flesh produces a more resonant sound.
The classical guitar is like a whole orchestra in one instrument: melodic line (which can switch from treble to bass), counterpoint, accompaniment, percussion: no other instrument need apply. And Virginia Luque is like the whole classical guitar industry in one person: performer, recording artist, commissioner of new works, promoter, composer, conductor, teacher – and she’s even starting a line of guitars that will produce quality instruments at a reasonable price! Virginia Luque will play a big role in the future of classical guitar. She’s on a mission to expand those who play and those who listen. It was a thrill to accompany her for a moment on her journey!
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.