Review: Classical Guitar “Magical Mystery Tour:” Mateusz Kowalski

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The leaders of 17 different classical guitar festivals and competitions from across Western and Eastern Europe came together a few years ago to form EuroStrings. The organization gives up-and-coming young guitarists opportunities to meet each other, learn from world-renowned musicians, go on international exchanges, compete for scholarships, and have their careers jump-started with the help of the collaborative.  Because music transcends national boundaries, neither Brexit nor other political disagreements are going to affect EuroStrings! 

Now Hawaii too has its own festival, the Hawaii International Guitar Series, thanks to William Jenks.  Mateusz Kowalski, the winner of the 2019 EuroStrings competition, is the third in the Series to perform in Hawi. With the sun on the ocean behind him, wind blowing through the room, and the brief appearance of a rainbow on the water, Kowalski was like an angelic apparition appearing in our midst, filling the space with heavenly music.

The most unusual and modern piece he played was Nicolas Kahn’s Les Arcanes, which won the prize for composition at the first EuroStrings Festival. Kowalski described the short piece as “ten magical mysteries.” Indeed, guitar techniques are feats of sleight-of-hand, where the viewer cannot see what the fingers are doing since they are moving so fast or so subtly; and where the listener is made to believe that that long tone cannot possibly have been plucked, or that so many notes heard at once cannot have been played by just one instrument, or that there is no percussion instrument in the background.  Each miniature takes less than a minute, and each ends abruptly before the trickery can be exposed. Les Arcanes’  magic tricks amaze and amuse.

At the other historical end, Kowalski gave us a Prelude from J.S. Bach, the granddaddy of classical guitar.  Kowalski’s unique style is one of transparency. He does for music what X-ray does for the body: he reveals the inner structural elements, such as melodic lines or lack thereof, deconstruction of chords into argeggio’s, dynamic contrasts, recurrent themes and variations – nothing is obscured, everything is clear. In this piece, we experience the dialogue between two equal voices, with neither stealing the show.

Much of the music in the classical guitar repertoire involves piano pieces arranged for guitar; this is because that in the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, very little was written for guitar, while piano music was composed and performed in abundance.  It was the great Spanish guitarist Francisco Tarrega who, in the late 19th century, began the rediscovery and popularity of classical guitar through both his compositions and his arrangements of piano music.  He arranged Chopin’s Mazurka in C major and Prelude in E major, which was Kowalski’s opening selection.  The magic here is that the music does not feel like it is thinned down; it is as full-bodied and fulfilling as the piano original.  Tarrega, with a boost from Kowalski himself, also arranged the third of Shubert’s Moments Musicaux, a charming and playful little piece, with a steady staccato accompaniment to the smooth melody above it; this is a trick (I’m not sure this rises to the level of magic!) like rubbing your belly while tapping your head! 

Tremolo, as demonstrated in Agustin Barrios’ Contemplacion – Vals et Tremolo, fools the listener into thinking that they are hearing a single long note. That impression is made through the rapid plucking of the same string; the result sounds almost like vibrato, only with tiny fractions of space between the notes. Above the tremolo, a gorgeous melody sings.

Piazzolla must appear in any classical guitar program, and Invierno Porteno (Winter in Buenos Aires) involves a theme and five variations each conveying a different mood – such as regret, agitation, and resignation – and then ends on a major chord and a feeling of hope.  Nicolas Coste, a French guitarist and composer, in Fantasie dramatique… Le Depart, tells the story of a French soldier who, in spite of being on the victorious side, realizes when he returns home that neither he nor his world will ever be the same. While there are martial and even triumphal themes, they have a bit of a soft edge. Fitting for today and any day the music tells us, “No More Wars.” 

The great Italian guitarist and composer, Mauro Giuliani, played music with his contemporaries Paganini and Rossini.  Wouldn’t we all have liked to have them magically appear at the Simpson home in Hawi (the graciousness and warmth of our hostess Carmen Simpson I doubt could have been surpassed in those 18th-century salons)!  But the next best thing was Kowalski playing two Giuliani pieces based on selections from Rossini operas.  Le Rossiniane No. 1 was light and playful; Kowalski is a master of pianissimo so that you can barely hear when he ratchets down the volume, and then he can rise suddenly to a rousing decibel level.  Rossiniane No. 2 is based on four arias about love, progressing from a sad song to happy, happier and happiest. Kowalski’s touch is so gentle and sure, his face and body devoid of unnecessary drama, it’s as if – like a puppeteer in the wings – he’s making us think the guitar is playing itself.

Reluctant to have the music stop, the audience performed its own magic trick, the “Hana Hou.”  Kowalski obliged us with a final stunning performance of the Romanian dance by Stepan Rak; it made us want to whirl like Gypsies out of our seats.  The spell spun by Mateusz Kowalski did not dissipate quickly.  The magical mystery tour continued as we floated home, on a cloud of wonder and joy. 


For more info on Mateusz Kowalski, please visit his website.

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.

Photos: Bartosz Kałaczkowski

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