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Fretboard Fantasies With Andrew McKenna Lee

Old First Concerts

Date: Fri May 21, 2010 8:00pm

Andrew McKenna Lee seemed to have passed through a sort of guitarist’s Fantasyland on his way to an appearance earlier this month at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Surrounded by proud family members in what he describes in a brief e-mail as “a really intense time for me,” the Brooklyn-based Lee recounts that, while growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, “I spent most of my years playing electric guitar, and I was really into the three J’s: Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. Then, as I got older, I moved to steel string guitar, à la Michael Hedges and Leo Kottke. And eventually, I ended up on classical guitar, since I was always drawn to the sort of ‘rolling polyphony’ of its texture.”

For his Old First Concerts recital here on May 21, Lee will span the guitar repertoire, from Scarlatti’s Sonatas K. 175 and 481 in A Minor to Milhaud’s Segoviana, Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina, Op. 51, and Leo Brouwer’s Sonata. And he’ll showcase his own physically demanding and aurally dynamic Five Refractions of a Prelude by Bach, which he’d played at Disney Hall and recorded on his debut album (Gravity and Air on New Amsterdam Records), alongside his transcription of the inspiration for his Refractions, Bach’s Prelude for Lute in D Minor, BWV 999.

“I’ve always been creative, which is why I ultimately chose to study composition instead of the guitar,” avows Lee, who began his study at Carnegie Mellon University and earned a master’s at the Manhattan School of Music. “I first fell in with the minimalists,” he continues, “and sort of worked my way backwards through music history: Stravinsky, Bartók, and ultimately Beethoven and Schubert. Now I’m a huge fan of the Eastern European modernist guys: Lutoslawski, Schnittke, Ligeti, Penderecki, etc.”

Although Lee stayed with composition in the academy, he benefitted from private guitar instruction from James Ferla, David Leisner, and Laura Oltman, and from master classes with Manuel Barrueco, Alvaro Pierri, and Carlos Barbosa-Lima. “I see my music as being kind of a combination of all these different influences, which is not so unique to my generation,” says the 36-year-old Lee. “But perhaps it’s a bit unusual, considering the role the guitar plays in my current professional and creative endeavors.

“That being said, I do not really wish to be a kind of exclusive guitar composer. I really love writing for all instrumental combinations.” Lee’s works have been featured at festivals worldwide, and his Concert Artists Guild commission for harpist Bridget Kibbey was premiered at Carnegie Hall a year ago. He’s also shared stages with cellist Frances-Marie Vitti, bassist Mark Dresser, and the Janus Ensemble.

And as if all that, with ongoing demands on his writing and performing, weren’t enough, Lee is soldiering on to a Ph.D. in composition at Princeton. “My head is in a lot of different places right now,” he admits with a virtual, well-deserved sigh.

Jeff Kaliss has written about opera and other classical forms for the Marin Independent-Journal and The Oakland Tribune. He is based in San Francisco, and also covers jazz, world music, country, rock, film, theater, and other entertainment. The second edition of his authorized biography of Sly & the Family Stone was published by Backbeat Books.