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Expanding the Guitar's Possibilities

Scott Cmiel on October 29, 2012
Pacific Guitar Ensemble
Pacific Guitar Ensemble

The classical guitar is a subtle instrument best known for its intimate solo voice. In recent decades, a growing number of duos, trios, and quartets have been exploring the coloristic, dynamic, and contrapuntal possibilities of the instrument in an ensemble setting. More recently, larger ensembles have begun exploring the creative possibilities.

The Pacific Guitar Ensemble is an unusually diverse group that combines acoustic steel-string, classical, Baroque, electric, and bass guitars with oud and theorbo. The group was formed in 2010 when classical guitarist David Tanenbaum and steel-string guitarist Peppino D’Agostino wanted to explore the untapped potential offered by combining a variety of plucked instruments in a larger guitar ensemble. The result, as heard in a recital presented by the Omni Foundation on Saturday in San Francisco’s Green Room, is an ensemble sound that is sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, but always alluring.

The evening began with Fernando Sor’s Grand Solo, Op. 14, a work originally written for solo guitar that emulates the symphonic style of Sor’s contemporary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Sergio Assad’s brilliant arrangement for the Pacific Guitar Ensemble acknowledges the work’s original symphonic inspiration by expanding it with additional counterpoint and ornamentation and by enriching the guitar sound with the addition of bass guitar and the harpsichord-like timbre of the acoustic steel-string guitar.

The result … is an ensemble sound that is sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, but always alluring. The sound world of the group got wider with Alkioni, a composition by group member Paul Psarras, based on a Greek myth about a man and his wife punished by the gods for imagining they were happier and more in love than Zeus and Hera. The sun-drenched idyll of ancient Greece as well as the subsequent dramatic events were effectively captured by the modal writing and by Psarras’ highly effective performance on the oud, an instrument often used in traditional Greek music.

The original scoring for Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto” No. 6 is unusual because it doesn’t use violins. instead featuring two violas, two violas de gamba, a cello, a violone, and a harpsichord. The resulting low tessitura makes it particularly felicitous for guitar ensemble. The group as a whole sounded somewhat lackluster in the piece, with most members focused entirely on their scores, though the brilliant solo parts (featuring intricate canons and bravura passages) were performed with incredible élan and with open and flexible ensemble skill by the soloists Michael Bautista and Marc Teicholz.

Master at Play

Peppino D’Agostino is a well-known soloist on the acoustic steel-string guitar who is praised throughout the world as a master of his genre. He is becoming better known in the classical guitar world because of his collaborations with David Tanenbaum and lately because of his work with the Pacific Guitar Ensemble. His Jump Rope, written for solo guitar and inspired by claw-hammer banjo playing, was arranged for the ensemble by D’Agostino himself and Tanenbaum and added a folklike element to the PGE repertoire while still achieving a very classical level of complexity. D’Agostino has an extremely engaging musical voice, and I hope to hear more of his work in classical guitar settings.

The brilliant solo parts … were performed with incredible élan by the soloists Michael Bautista and Marc Teicholz.The most compelling composition of the evening was Y Bolanzero, written by Terry Riley, the musician often credited with originating the minimalist style of classical music and also the first composer to explore the possibilities of mixing varieties of plucked-string instruments. Pacific Guitar Ensemble founder David Tanenbaum took a supportive role playing inner voices or bass guitar for most of the evening but he played the first guitar part in Y Bolanzero, and his nuanced phrasing, beautiful tone, and exquisite command of Riley’s style were revelatory.

The concert ended with wonderful arrangements by Sergio Assad of Astor Piazzolla’s Otono Porteno and Verano Porteno. Piazzolla’s alternately violent and tender music is perfectly captured by his legendary quintet and often suffers in the more decorous world of the classical guitar, yet Assad’s arrangements took advantage of the electric bass guitars and steel-string acoustic to add the needed ominous overtones.

If George Martin was sometimes called the “fifth Beatle,” perhaps Assad could be referred to as the ninth member of the Pacific Guitar Ensemble. Although he doesn’t play with the group, he had three arrangements on this recital and an original composition, Wednesdays at Sugar, on the group’s excellent debut CD, which I purchased after the recital. For me, the concert continued delightfully on my ride home in the car, with another standout piece being the powerful Begin by composer Belinda Reynolds and dedicated to the memory of Jorge Liderman.

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