As I was listening to Benjamin Verdery perform three of his arrangements of Jimi Hendrix songs, followed by his transcription for guitar of the Fourth Cello Suite by J.S. Bach, I recalled the cover of a classic Nonesuch Lp from what seems like eons ago. It was called "Bach on the Electric Guitar," and on the cover was a drawing of the master in psychedelic garb, plugged in and rocking. The juxtaposition of Hendrix and Bach is not as preposterous as some would think, and anyone who still harbors such musical xenophobia is missing out. It's not just guitarists who can program the two together. World-renowned cellist Matt Haimovitz has re-invented his career to help bridge the gap of musical myopia, and audiences love it.
On January 28, the Triangle Guitar Society presented Benjamin Verdery, Chair of the Guitar Department at the Yale University School of Music, at the Carrboro Century Center, in a very well-attended event. Verdery last appeared 'round these parts at Elon University in 2002. As I recall, he played a similar program, but that made little difference to those who are hearing him for the first time – or to long-time fans. Verdery is also an accomplished composer who works in both traditional guitar styles and those incorporating electronic effects, especially tape loops. The evening's fare had a little bit of everything.
It began with three tunes by Hendrix: "Easy Rider," "Little Wing," and "Purple Haze." The highlight of the three was the beautifully lyrical introduction to "Little Wing." This is a perfect acoustic adaptation of an electric gem. It became apparent very quickly – just in case there had been any doubt – that this is an artist of exceptional spirit and technique who adapts his classical chops to just about any style, period, or genre.
Classical guitarists have latched onto Bach's First and Third Cello Suites and virtually adopted them as their own, in some editions adding questionable bass lines and harmonies inconsistent with the original. It was thus a nice change of pace to hear a guitarist tackle the Fourth Suite and to play it, for the most part, in the true spirit of the original. The Prelude is mainly a free, arpeggiated movement with some of the most unique and surprising harmonies that you will ever encounter. It is broken up by some cadenza-like passages, wherein Verdery veered off course from the rhythmic relationship with the rest of the movement. It wasn't mentioned in the program, but I believe this is his own transcription; it is one that didn't try to "improve" on the original; that's why I found the gimmicky vamp and fadeout in the second Bourree to be quite strange and inappropriate. Overall, it was played with great passion and conviction, although it doesn't translate to the guitar with the same elegance and power as the original cello version.
Verdery broke his verbal silence to educate the audience about the electronic effects he uses in "Be Kind All the Time," a composition dedicated to the 14th Dalai Lama. The key idea is that none of the sounds we hear are pre-recorded – they are all played by Verdery in real-time and then re-played and manipulated via digital looping and foot pedals. This sort of manipulation can lead to all sorts of excesses and formless noise, but the work is a wonderfully-evocative and expertly-crafted composition. Unfortunately, it loses some of its effect on recordings, so live encounters are the best way to experience it.
Some of the greatest works guitarists play were not written for the instrument. It is often said (even by pianists!) that some of the piano works of Albéniz and Granados sound better on the guitar – and might even have been written for it. You cannot say the same for piano originals by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and, most of all, Chopin: it is a very rare transcription that works. Verdery defied conventional wisdom by crafting one of the finest transformations from piano to guitar I have ever heard – Mozart's Adagio, K.540, a stand-alone work that is among the most reverent, deeply-felt works of the master. Transcribing is an art in itself, and this passed the main hurdle – does it sound convincing on the instrument? Verdery's mastery of his art and his almost mystical playing made for a moving and passionate experience that, according to the artist, will soon be available in a newly published edition.
As if being a virtuoso player, composer, and transcriber isn't enough, Verdery is quite a showman and entertainer – and I mean that in the best possible way. Great stories, a breezy, laid-back style, and a genuine love and appreciation of the overwhelming reception he received made everyone in the audience feel closer to the music and the artist.