San Francisco Performances has joyously returned to presenting live concerts in Herbst Theatre, with a summer season featuring favorite stars. I was there on Friday night to hear guitarist William Kanengiser and the Alexander String Quartet perform a well-conceived and original program titled “British Invasion,” which featured music inspired by Renaissance composer John Dowland, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Sting as seen through the different sensibilities of composers Leo Brouwer, Dusan Bogdanovic, and Ian Krouse.
There was a celebratory mood in Herbst on Friday, only slightly damped by new concerns about virus variants and vaccine hesitancy. The balance between instruments, always a concern in ensembles mixing guitar and strings, was exemplary. Kanengiser and the Alexander Quartet played with sublime musicality.
Ian Krouse’s Music in Four Sharps is a set of variations on John Dowland’s song, “Now, O Now, I Needs Must Part.” The triple meter and repeated harmonic progression, similar to Pachelbel’s Canon, made it very popular in its day, and Dowland also used the material for his “Frog Galliard,” a lute solo thought to reference a well-known French suitor of Queen Elizabeth I.
Krouse begins his piece with a ravishing hocket. The notes of the bass line alternated between Sandy Wilson’s pizzicato cello and William Kanengiser’s guitar bass strings plucked without nail. There were many other beautiful effects, my favorite being the combination of string tremolo with Kanengiser’s rasgueado. The variations are on the harmonic progression rather than the melody, but quotations highlight the center of the piece, which afterward works with motivic fragments of the tune and gradually builds to a searing climax followed by an ethereal variation on the introspective opening.
Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, the preeminent contemporary composer for the guitar, has described The Beatles’ music as the folk songs of today. He wrote Beatlerianas partially in response to a Cuban government official who urged composers to avoid Western influences. Brouwer’s textures are marked with his own character while still paying homage to this music.
Brouwer starts “Eleanor Rigby” with a quasi-fugal exposition of the tune, on Friday played by the Alexander Quartet before the familiar setting emerged. He begins “She’s Leaving Home” with a fluid introduction of his own invention and captures the poignant tale from the perspective of both daughter and parents. The setting made beautiful use of Kanengiser’s sweet upper register and haunting string quartet refrains. “Penny Lane” is a vivid portrait of a day in the life on the bustling streets of Liverpool. Brouwer captures the energy of the scene. The Alexander Quartet played staccato chords sounding like a rock band while Kanengiser used bent strings like a bluesman.
Dusan Bogdanovic’s Prisms — Six Songs by Sting has a fascinating history. Sting, one of the most versatile of pop stars, the longtime leader of The Police, recorded Dowland’s songs on his solo album Songs From the Labyrinth (2006/2008). Bogdanovic was commissioned, with Sting’s approval, to set the several of Sting’s own songs for the album’s lutenist, Edin Karamazov.
Bogdanovic views the well-known melodies through his own artistic prism. “Every Breath You Take” is set in a Balkan rhythm and uses a motive of the original song to invoke Bach’s First Cello Suite; “Message in a Bottle” uses an African polyrhythm reminiscent of György Ligeti; “Shape of My Heart” is a mournful, bluesy duet, perfect for Sandy Wilson’s cello and Kanengiser’s guitar; and the rest of the tunes are arranged just as inventively.
Ian Krouse’s Labyrinth on a Theme of Led Zeppelin begins with an exact transcription of the song “Friends” by Jimmy Page, known for its odd meters, bent pitches, and exotic scales. Krouse’s composition, over 20 minutes in length, had Kanengiser playing both classical guitar and steel string guitar in altered tuning, at times with his fingers and at other times with a guitar pick. Kanengiser also used a bottle-neck to execute slides in the manner of the classic blues artist Robert Johnson, played microtonal string bends evoking Robert Plant’s vocals, and produced rock-style strumming alongside counterpoint and rapid passagework. It was an impressive display of versatility. The Alexander Quartet was magnificent in matching Kanengiser’s expertise in this compelling and unusual music, and they seemed to enjoy themselves a great deal.
The socially distanced and masked audience had no trouble showing their enthusiasm and appreciation and were rewarded by a moving encore performance of Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” as arranged by Leo Brouwer.