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Songs of His Fathers and Forefathers

Scott Tennant

January 9, 2010

The San Francisco Bay Area has one of the largest and most enthusiastic audiences in the country for the classical guitar. Internationally acclaimed artists are regularly featured by San Francisco Performances and the Omni Foundation, while young talent is often presented by smaller organizations. The South Bay Guitar Society, undoubtedly the best organized and ambitious of these smaller presenters, gave its audience a special treat Saturday: Scott Tennant, a founding member of the Grammy-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, in a rare solo recital.

The venue was Le Petit Trianon Theatre in San José, an exquisite hall with excellent acoustics modeled on a chateau on the grounds of Versailles, which King Louis XV of France had built in 1761 for his favorite mistress. The attentive and enthusiastic audience, carefully nurtured over the years by the Guitar Society, heard an engaging and varied program that began with Campanas del Alba (Bells of dawn), by Eduardo Sainz de la Maza. Tennant’s beautiful tone and mastery of tremolo, a technique used by guitarists in which repeated notes create the illusion of a continuous melodic line, began the recital with a mysterious and expectant atmosphere.

The lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss was a friend of J.S. Bach’s and one of the more celebrated musicians of his era. His Sonata 34 in D Minor is a substantial suite that Tennant performed with elegant attention to expression and style. In the Prelude, an idiomatically broken chord progression, his careful technique made the exquisite voice leading appear simple, and in each of the dances that followed he brought out the inherent expressive qualities. In the Allemande, graced by lovely melodic sequences, he emphasized Weiss’ singing, cantabile style with finely graded dynamics and a supple rhythmic sense. A swift and mercurial Courante was followed by an earthy Bourée, a grave and ceremonious Sarabande, an aristocratic pair of Minuets, and a fiery Gigue.

Isaac Albéniz’ “Rumores de la Caleta” (Murmurs of the inlet) is a movement from the suite Recuerdos de Viaje (Memories of my travels) and is based on the flamenco form of Malaguena. Although written originally for piano, the piece imitates many idiomatic guitar sounds, and Tennant’s use of rasgueado strummed chords, right-hand thumb-rest strokes, and frequent use of slurs perfectly captured the music’s roots in flamenco. After the purely guitaristic introduction, the music slows and a rhythmically free and emotionally intense melody, reminiscent of a Gypsy singer and played with great verve, alternates with interludes in the guitaristic style.

Sophisticated Etudes California composer Brian Head, whose music is becoming extremely popular with guitarists throughout the world, wrote two exquisite études that allowed Tennant to showcase his effortless mastery while bringing contemporary material to the stage. Fanfare is a slur-study in the Americana style of Aaron Copland, with folklike melodies and open harmonies. Chant, originally for orchestra, takes tremolo technique to another level of sophistication with asymmetrical groupings of repeated notes mixed with traditional lyricism.

Federico Moreno-Torroba wrote Suite Castellana in three movements for the great 20th-century Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. Tennant, who told the audience that hearing the piece at age 9 inspired him to study classical guitar, played the flamenco-inspired “Fandanguillo” section with passionate intensity, the introspective “Arada” with great sensitivity for its colorful harmony and gently meandering melodic line, and the ebullient “Danza” with jaunty vivacity.

In the 1960s, Cuban composer Leo Brouwer became well-known throughout the world with a series of highly successful avant-garde compositions, thereby transforming the traditional conservative guitar repertoire. It was revelatory to hear Tennant play a set of pieces Brouwer wrote in the 1950s while still a teenage student at Juilliard. Homenaje a Falla, Pieza sin titulo, Danza del Altiplano, and Danza Caracteristica all blend Latin American rhythms with an approach to guitar writing that already showed great originality. Tennant performed the set with characteristic aplomb.

The recital ended with a performance of Canción y Danza by Antonio Ruiz-Pipo, the first movement introspective and the second ecstatic. Tennant calmed the enthusiastic audience with a heartfelt rendition of Wild Mountain Thyme, a Scottish folk tune he told us his father sang to him as a child.

Scott Cmiel is Chair of the guitar and musicianship departments at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Preparatory Division and Director of the guitar program at San Francisco School of the Arts.