Dublin Guitar Quartet
Dublin Guitar Quartet | Credit: Laura Sheeran

The Dublin Guitar Quartet, a group lauded by new-music luminaries from Arvo Pärt to Kevin Volans, gave an exhilarating San Francisco debut on Friday night at Herbst Theatre in a concert sponsored by San Francisco Performances and the Omni Foundation.

In addition to their six-string guitars, members Brian Bolger, Pat Brunnock, Chien Buggle, and Tomas O’Durcain have augmented the range of their ensemble with the addition of eight-string and 11-string instruments, which allows them to perform music originally written for string quartet or piano. Compositions by Bryce Dessner, Philip Glass, Rachel Grimes, Pärt, and Marc Mellits are welcome additions to the classical guitar repertoire and on Friday made for an engrossing program.

Dessner is best known for his work with the rock band The National (which was playing two blocks away at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium the same evening), but he has an independent career as a classical composer. His Aheym was written for the Kronos Quartet and is characterized by jagged syncopated chords and aggressive arpeggios that reflect Dessner’s rock roots and make the guitar quartet an appropriate medium. The title means “homeward” in Yiddish, and the performance by the Dublin Quartet fiercely brought to mind the hardships endured by people forced to flee their homes that prompted Dessner’s composition.

Glass, one of the most influential composers of the late 20th century, is a constant collaborator. His String Quartet No. 2 was written to accompany a theatrical adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s novella Company. The String Quartet No. 3 was written for the film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and also initially performed by Kronos. Glass’s piano etudes were begun as a present for pianist and conductor Dennis Russell Davies and continued as an exploration of keyboard technique. The Dublin Quartet’s arrangements of these works call for rigorously precise playing while leaving room for an expressive use of color. Glass himself has written that the “Dublin Guitar Quartet has carved a place for itself in the world of classical music. I am delighted that my music is part of their repertoire.”

The Louisville-based Grimes came to attention as a member of the post-rock/classical fusion group Rachel’s. Her Book of Leaves is a collection of solo piano music inspired by the Kentucky countryside, American and English folk music, and minimalism. The Dublin Quartet deftly captured the introspective emotional intensity of the music and skillfully brought out the short, lively themes of “Every Morning” as well as the haunting folk song quoted in “My Dear Companion” amid its pulsing minimalism.

Dublin Guitar Quartet
Dublin Guitar Quartet

Estonian composer Pärt, like Glass, has praised the Dublin Quartet and worked with the group on arranging his compositions. Summa is a musical exploration of spiritual transcendence created with a short, gently rocking motive presented in a variety of textures and reminiscent of church bells. The Dublin Quartet’s warm, tender approach was sublime and a perfect foil for the evening’s final work. Mellits’ Titan is an exhilarating work in the rock-influenced style of Bang on a Can, which the Dublin Quartet performed for an enthusiastic audience and with great intensity.