This was the inaugural year for the Hawaii International Guitar Series, and it’s been a more exciting year than we bargained for! After three fantastic performances in Hawi, COVID shut down the final two in-person concerts. But difficulty breeds creativity! Series organizer William Jenks has put together three virtual concerts with different, but equally compelling, classical guitarists than were originally on the roster.
Grammy Award-winning American musician Jason Vieaux, considered among the best classical guitarists of our time, performed August 30. The program included music spanning five centuries, from the earliest known published work for guitar by Alonso Mudarra in the 1500s, to the this-very-minute compositions by Jason Vieaux himself in 2020. This was a time-travel journey through classical guitar history.
The concert began, fittingly, at the beginning! We think of improvisation as a modern technique, but Mudarra already favored the fantasia form, which is improvisational in character. No. 10 is a tiny gem, containing major and minor chord progressions in constantly changing keys with a bass line punctuating each measure, and then a surprising change in tempo as it moves into a different mood, and then settles into a restful resolution.
Because the guitar was not a highly regarded classical instrument in the 17th and 18 centuries, much of the guitar repertoire has been transposed from music for other instruments. Vieaux played his own arrangement of Bach’s Suite for Cello in G major. While all classical guitarists play Bach, Vieaux’s interpretation was revelatory. We think of Baroque music as more constrained than the music that came later in the Classical or Romantic periods, but form doesn’t have to diminish feeling; it is a container – like the sonnet form – in which emotion can actually be more intense precisely because it is condensed rather than dispersed. The Allemande was exquisitely rendered; Vieaux uses just the right amount of ornamentation: you don’t need a lot of frosting on a delicate and delicious cake. My favorite movement was the Menuetto II. Vieaux used tiny retards and gently held notes and phrases to draw out the melting sweetness.
Moving along the centuries, Vieaux gave us what guitar audiences crave: the Spanish composers who brought classical guitar into its own in the 19th century. Fernando Sor was the first to both popularize and to gain respect for guitar as a classical instrument. Vieaux played Sor’s Variations on a Theme by Mozart. The theme is short and simple, and then the variations show off the many things a guitar can do; variation 6 for example is so fast that the right hand sounds like a tremolo but it is not repeating the same note. Francisco Tarrega and Isaac Albeñiz rounded out the trio of Spanish composers; we were delighted to hear the familiar “Capricho Arabe” and “Asturias.”
It has been noted that COVID has had some silver linings. In the case of Jason Vieaux, in March 2020, forced to stay home, he finally found time to write down some of his own compositions. “Home,” with its constant tremolo, seems destined to become part of every guitarist’s repertoire. “Home,” “Grumble,” and “Elegy/Prayer” all successfully combine modern with classical sensibilities. These pieces made us think he needs to stay home more often!
The Hawaii Classical Guitar Series may have been derailed by COVID, but it’s back on track. There are still two more performances (tickets at ): Eliot Fisk on Sept. 13 and then Wiliam Jenks himself, with Hawaii’s own rising star Ian O’Sullivan, on Sept. 27. We miss seeing the performers in person and I bet Jason Vieaux would rather be playing in Hawi than in his basement in Cleveland. However, real or virtual, his guitar playing is gorgeous whatever century or venue he inhabits.
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.