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Katona Twins Come Together Across Musical Borders

November 1, 2013

San Francisco Performances

Katona TwinsThe Katona Twins Guitar Duo highlighted both the popular and classical roots of the guitar in an unusual and distinctive recital presented by San Francisco Performances and the Omni Foundation at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Friday night. The program ranged from an English Suite by J. S. Bach and Córdoba by Isaac Albéniz to arrangements of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and The Beatles’ Come Together. The performance styles borrowed from the traditions of classical, flamenco, and rock guitarists. The technical command was absolute.

I forgot that San Francisco Performances is beginning many of their recitals at 7:30 p.m. this year and only heard the conclusion of Introduction and Fandango by Luigi Boccherini but it was memorable. Peter and Zoltan Katona held their guitars low slung, with shoulder straps and strode around the stage interacting with each other, and posing for the audience like rock stars. The Fandango is an 18th-century example of classical music influenced by popular styles, in this case Spanish flamenco, and was described at the time as wild and exuberant. It’s still experienced that way by contemporary audiences and the Katona’s presentation, full of striking virtuosity, high spirits, and humor, highlighted the place of this music in the repertoire and gave hints of things to come.

The result was exquisite. The Prelude imitates a Bach orchestral concerto and the Katona’s perfect instrumental balance made it possible to clearly follow a dizzying array lines imitating a trio of soloists as well as full bodied orchestra.

The mood changed substantially for Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808. Bach’s Suites use popular dance forms as their inspiration but are so full of emotion and art they always go well beyond their models. The Katona’s performed in the traditional classical seated position either to emphasize the musical contrast with the Boccherini, or to negotiate the incredible technical and musical demands imposed by Bach’s intensity, or both. In any event the result was exquisite. The Prelude imitates a Bach orchestral concerto and the Katona’s perfect instrumental balance made it possible to clearly follow a dizzying array lines imitating a trio of soloists as well as full bodied orchestra. The following Baroque courtly dances were rhythmically alive and emotionally expressive with the mercurial Courante, the emotionally ardent Sarabande, and the rustic Gavotte particularly compelling.

The Carmen Suite by George Bizet is widely acclaimed for its Spanish character and the Katona’s performance was reminiscent of flamenco. They used a common flamenco sitting position with legs crossed and they played an arrangement full of rasgueado and percussive tapping that ended with an over the top Danse Boheme. Another piece influenced by Spanish culture, Isaac Albéniz’s Córdoba, portrays both the religious and secular history of a city with both Moorish and Christian roots, and was given a more traditional and nuanced interpretation.

The Katona’s have gotten a lot of attention with their arrangements of the rock songs. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is successively a sensitive ballad followed by a blistering rock guitar solo, a passage usually described as operatic that has more in common with musicals, a heavy metal section, and a lyrical conclusion. It uses abrupt changes of style to present a complex message and the Katona’s have mastered each style and perform with introspection or showmanship as needed. The material uses extreme contrast to heighten interest. The Katona’s arrangement suffers in comparison to the original because they lack the contrast available to a full rock band. The reliance on surprising stylistic changes, breathtaking speed, rasgueado, and percussion has limitations but characterize many of the Katona’s crossover experiments from Bohemian Rhapsody to their own compositions Scarlatti’s Metamorphosis and Meditation and Passacaglia. The Beatles’ original Come Together is a an ironic and cool take on early rock and roll but the Katona’s very fast and earnest version loses a great deal of the delightful subtlety of the original.

Each half of the concert was given additional variety by the inclusion of a solo by one of the brothers. Zoltan performed an elegant and romantic version of Valse No. 3 by Agustin Barrios. Peter gave a very effective spoken introduction to Joaquin Rodrigo’s Invocation and Dance which related the music to Manuel e Falla’s El Amor Brujo. His masterful performance had the added advantage of an audience imagining a lovelorn gypsy, a smoldering fire in a dark cave, and a magic spell.

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.