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Guitarist Judicaël Perroy Dives Deep

November 14, 2017

San Francisco Performances

San Francisco guitarists have been buzzing with excitement and curiosity since the San Francisco Conservatory of Music announced the appointment of classical guitarist Judicaël Perroy and jazz guitarist Julian Lage to their faculty. Lage grew up in the Bay Area and has performed here regularly. Perroy, despite a very active international career, has only played here once, in 2011, as a member of the Paris Guitar Duo.

When San Francisco Performances and the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts were faced with an unfortunate, last-minute cancellation by Russian virtuoso Irina Kulikova they turned to Perroy who performed an ambitious and artistically satisfying program of music by on short notice.

Perroy began with one of Villa-Lobos’s earliest extant compositions, which he lovingly revised later in life. The Suite Populaire Bresilienne, an engaging combination of European classicism and Brazilian popular styles, is reminiscent of music Villa-Lobos played at weddings, carnivals, cafes, and theaters as a member of the street bands of Rio de Janeiro. Perroy performed it with graceful lyricism. The highlights for me were the opening Mazurka-Chôros, with its wistful tone, a flirtatious Schottisch-Chôros, and a dark and dramatic concluding Chôrinho.

The major work on the program, the Suite BWV 997 by J. S. Bach, is one of his most complex and challenging solo compositions and Perroy’s virtuosity, intelligence, and expressivity were perfectly suited to the work’s challenges. Probably written in Leipzig in the late 1730’s for the Dresden lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss, who performed at Bach’s home in 1739, it begins with a is a free fantasia animated by its opening motive. The emotionally powerful Fugue features an elaborately worked out opening section with two subjects (main themes), several countersubjects, extended episodes with multiple contrapuntal levels, and an unusual form.

Perroy brought clarity and spirit to this difficult music, an accomplishment of the highest level and a special pleasure to hear.  His rhapsodic lamentation in the Sarabande reminded me of the tragic, final chorus of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, and his vigorous interpretations of the Gigue and Double provided an unbridled release of pent-up emotion.

The surprise of the evening was the Fantasia on Hungarian Melodies by the Viennese composer and performer Johann Dubez (1828-1891). The work and composer were new to me, and not a part the standard guitar repertoire, but I was delighted to make their acquaintance in Perroy’s virtuosic and passionate interpretation. Dubez was obviously influenced by the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Franz Liszt. Like Liszt, Dubez’s Fantasia distills stylized “gypsy” music as well as a striking combination of expressive musicianship and virtuoso exhibitionism.

The influential musicologist Matanya Ophee passed away this week and Perroy movingly dedicated his next selection, Fernando Sor’s Fantaisie élégiaque, Op. 59, to Ophee’s memory. The two-movement work is Sor at his most powerful, from the dramatic diminished chord with which it opens, to the mysterious harmonics, and the words “Charlotte!” and “Adieu!” written over the music near the conclusion.

The work was dedicated to a Charlotte Beslay who, Matanya Ophee discovered, had been a student of Sor who died in childbirth. Sor’s elegy, composed late in his life, may have been a meditation on the composer’s own mortality. Perroy’s performance evinced his affinity for and mastery of long and emotionally complex music.

Perroy concluded with several lovely character pieces: Barrios’ Choro de Saudade, a melancholy melody supported by haunting harmonies made possible by lowering the pitch of the bottom strings; and Sergio Assad’s Seis Brevidades, a set of six unrelated pieces inspired by memorable moments spent in Chicago and Paris. The composer says the word “Brevidades” has a double meaning, referring to both brevity and also the name of a Brazilian cupcake, which suggests that these pieces should be taken as sweets. Perroy certainly left a grateful audience satisfied with both a fine dinner and delightful desserts.

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.

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