Classical guitarist David Tanenbaum

Featured article on David Tanenbaum

on December 3, 2008

Classical guitarist David Tanenbaum presented an excellent recital of classical guitar, featured in a variety of chamber music settings, along with one spellbinding solo work on Saturday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall. A faculty member at the Conservatory, where he is chair of the collegiate Guitar Department, Tanenbaum was joined by fellow faculty members harpsichordist Corey Jamason and violinist Axel Strauss, as well as by steel string guitarist Peppino D’Agostino. The program, presented by the Omni Foundation, consisted of well-loved standards, creative arrangements, and compelling new music written by Antonio Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, Astor Piazzolla, Peter Maxwell Davies, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and D’Agostino.

David Tanenbaum

Tanenbaum began with a set of guitar duos with D’Agostino that grew increasingly more intricate. The Concerto in G, by Vivaldi, was originally written for lute, strings, and basso continuo and is well-known and much loved by guitarists. Tanenbaum gave a stylish account of the soloist’s part, adding elaborate ornamentation that amazed and delighted those in the audience who were accustomed to more literal interpretations. D’Agostino combined the continuo and string parts with rhythmic energy and sensitivity.

The English composer Peter Maxwell Davies is currently Master of the Queen’s Music, the musical equivalent of Poet Laureate of England. Concerned about environmental issues, he wrote Farewell to Stromness to protest plans to mine uranium on the island of Orkney, north of Scotland. The slow walking bass line that supports the piece is meant to portray the town’s residents forced to leave their homes as a result of uranium pollution. In a spoken introduction Tanenbaum quoted his son, who called it the saddest music in a major key he had ever heard. D’Agostino and Tanenbaum, in turn, each played the keening melody and its characteristic Scotch snap, with exquisite sensitivity. The lovely tonal contrast between their nylon and steel strings proved an effective introduction to the next piece.

Reich’s Nagoya Guitars is a creative arrangement that Tanenbaum made of the composer’s Nagoya Marimbas. The piece, written in 1994, is similar to Reich’s early work in its use of repeating patterns that occur one or more beats out of phase. The patterns are, however, more complex and change more frequently than in the earlier music. I’ve enjoyed hearing the music on marimba and with two classical guitars but was quite taken by the combination of nylon and steel strings, which made the intricate unison canons clearly audible while highlighting Tanenbaum and D’Agostino’s virtuosic interplay.

The duo concluded their set with D’Agostino’s own work Venus Over Venice. A phenomenally talented guitarist/composer, D’Agostino is influenced by traditional Italian music, classical music, pop, and steel string guitarists like Leo Kottke and Pierre Bensusan. Venus Over Venice featured the composer playing an elaborate series of arpeggiated harmonies and Tanenbaum on a long-lined, lyrical melody. Their finely calibrated diminuendo conclusion was breathtaking.

Bach’s Sonata in F, BWV 529, originally for solo organ, is a three-movement work in three voices. Harpsichordist Corey Jamason and Tanenbaum each played one of the two upper voices while Jamason also played the bass. The opening Allegro featured a two-part theme in invertible counterpoint, with both artists deftly exchanging parts in Bach’s intricate and absorbing texture. The Largo featured two highly ornamented upper voices weaving in and around each other above a steady bass line. The closing Allegro used a more relaxed theme than the opening, though Bach’s elaboration was just as intricate; throughout, Tanenbaum and Jamason maintained their supple and sensitive ensemble.

Powerful Work of Conscience

The high point of the evening was Tanenbaum’s moving rendition of Riley’s Quando Cosas Malas Caen del Cielo (When bad things fall from the sky), performing it on a National Steel Guitar fretted in just intonation. On February 15, 2003, millions of people in almost eight hundred cities took part in protests against the possibility of a U.S. war in Iraq. In Nevada City, California, composer Terry Riley joined a ragtag group of mostly senior citizens in a march down Main Street and was arrested because the marchers lacked a city permit. After spending a night in jail, the composer was brought before a judge, convicted, and given three options for his sentence: Spend another night in jail, pay a fine, or agree to do community service. Riley told the judge he was a 70-year-old composer and suggested that he write a piece of music for his community service. The judge agreed and this powerful antiwar piece is the result.

The first movement, “National Broadstreet March,” depicts Riley and his band of senior citizens in a festive march worthy of Charles Ives. Tanenbaum played the second movement, “La melodia que se sienta solo” (The melody that feels alone), with a mournful sliding from note to note, capturing the loneliness of a solitary night in prison. “Corrente dicta,” the third movement, was a gathering of energy for continued protest. “Quando cosas malas caen del cielo,” the name of the fourth movement as well as of the entire piece, used the extremely dissonant thirds of just intonation to powerful expressive effect.

Tanenbaum is without peer in this music. He captured every mood to perfection — ebullient opening, mournful solo, building determination, and painful conclusion — with an amazing command of color, time, and empathy.

While it would seem to be difficult to follow such powerful music, Tanenbaum and violinist Axel Strauss took Conservatory Concert Hall by storm in Astor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango. In four movements that depict the characteristic tango of the periods about 1900, 1930, 1960, and 1980, this is a stylistic tour de force that asks a great deal of performers but offers even more to audiences. I have heard many performances, but until Saturday night none had matched the power of a recording by violinist Fernando Suarez Paz, a longtime associate of Piazzolla, and the Brazilian guitarist Odair Assad. Strauss and Tanenbaum accomplished that feat, getting right every stylistic nuance (none is mentioned in the score) and bringing down the house. I hope they are considering a recording.