L’Infidele: Jon Mendle (http://yogaofmusic.tripod.com/), Archguitar. Adam Falckenhagen: Sonata IV, Op. 1; C.P.E. Bach: Prussian Sonata V; Sylvius Leopold Weiss: Sonata 23, “L’Infidele.” In A Circle Records, Brooklyn, NY, ©2011, TT c. 40 min, 12 tracks. $15.00 via PayPal at: http://www.inacirclerecords.com/#/linfidele/3791185.

A youthful Mr. Mendle emerges from the thriving and quasi-rabid classical guitar environment of the San Francisco Bay area where simply being a good player won’t get you a double-tall, non-fat soy-latte w/Hawaiian macadamia shavings-hold-the-maraschino, on a bet. The region boasts one of the few remaining, all-guitar professional concert calendars (http://www.omniconcerts.org/), hosts a half dozen of the guitar world’s major performing artists and nationally recognized teachers, enjoys the service of several big-budget regional guitar societies, and fortunately produces enough wealth – thanks to that local electron management industry – to support all of it. To break out of this crowded and potentially cliquish crowd requires, well, talent, yes, but more importantly a solid recording, a few name-brand associations, currents of marketing cash, the kind of driving energy and relentless persistence common in youth, and something just a little weird to stick in memory.

Let’s start with that last one.

The instrument is weird. Depending on your sources and point of reference the Archguitar was first conceived and played in 1981 at Boston when player Peter Blanchette commissioned luthier Walter Stanu to build something that played like a guitar but sounded more like a lute. The gist is more strings, expanded range, different sound, and a hint of renaissance character. Hence an 11-string Archguitar was born, though it does have some Celtic cousins. In addition to a unique sound, the additional strings (a guitar normally has six) allow for the entire tessitura (the sonic region or plateau) to serve an expanded repertoire. Mr. Mendle played standard and seven-string classical guitars for a while and performed repertoire for both. But in 2007 he switched and now plays a contemporary 11-string Archguitar constructed by Bay Area builder Alan Perlman (http://www.perlmanguitars.com/).

Born in 1985, Mendle began studying the guitar in the Bay Area at the age of 12, and has traversed much of the usual guitar-playing terra including punk rock electric guitar and bass guitar while keeping in touch with the classical guitar repertoire. Not afraid to stretch, he studied the classical music of North India at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, CA, and took private sarod instruction under Steve Oda. In 2005 he entered the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and soon won an audition to perform on an all-guitar field trip performance at Weill Recital Hall in NYC. He completed undergraduate study in 2007, taking lessons from all four SFCM guitar teachers in that final year – allowed by the curriculum, but not always granted. He has performed extensively in master classes too (Kline, Russell, Barbosa-Lima, Kanengiser, Tadic, and Nigel North). In 2009 he won the SFCM biennial Guitar Concerto Competition and later finished his graduate studies under the tutelage of Sergio Assad. In August 2010 he performed a ten-date tour with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. He is currently a member of the Pacific Guitar Ensemble and the San Francisco Guitar Quartet.

All that has legs, certainly, and as proof this debut recording tends to support strong musicianship, finished skill sets, and pliable technique amid the framework of 18th century repertoire. While the style galant of Falckenhagen and C.P.E. Bach exhibit many showcase opportunities and are rich in signs pointing to the future, the Weiss sonata, bearing the recording’s title, rides a high baroque wave of finished style and occasional surprise cadences. The works are played with an abundance of grace, sensitivity, and polish, and there is just a hint that this player might one day jump free of perceived constraints and actually uncork landmark interpretations. The energy here is honest, welcome and good.

But as far as this instrument is concerned a listener will make some perceptual adjustments in order to achieve maximum enjoyment. The guitar occupies the domain of nuance, a characteristic that commands the audience to listen in new ways, if not more closely. In this case there are more complications in the mix yet greater opportunities too. Says Mendle, “What I love about the guitar is the soft, intimate, sensitive side of the instrument, and this is what the Archguitar does very well.” This is true, whether live in a modest room where I first heard it in Sacramento or on a recording, and the dynamic range and actual sound will cock the ear. “For solo Archguitar playing, I very much love venues with a more intimate feeling where I feel that I am sharing a musical experience with my audience. However, I have also played the instrument in front of thousands of people with the Silk Road Project, with great success. Yo-Yo Ma loved the guitar, and an audience member from one of the concerts even ordered one after hearing mine!” So, it’s fair to say that “weird” element is working.

A word about the title from the player’s notes: “Aside from being one of his most popular suites, Weiss’ L’Infidele is also a departure from tradition in some ways as it is influenced by Turkish music and culture. The title means “the unfaithful.” In the 1680s, the Ottoman Empire lay siege on the city of Vienna. While the siege failed, it gave birth to a rage for all things Turkish, including music, art, and of course coffee.* Weiss wrote this suite around 1719 while he was in Vienna, and he was no doubt influenced by this. The title refers to the reluctance of the Islamic Ottoman forces to embrace Christianity.”

So there you have it. The more things change, the more….

Yeah, well…, and now a word about the CD company: a small label with only four clients, In A Circle Records was started by Johnny Gandelsman in 2008. The name came from a concert series he ran in NYC, In a Circle Concerts. These were basically live “happenings,” programs without boundaries between performers and audience members. The concerts featured extremely high quality classical music with other genres including American folk music, Azerbaijani and Persian classical music, jazz, and indie singer-songwriters. Each show also had a visual art element with some hosting one-day exhibitions as well as live, improvised painting. One mission of the label is to help artists who don’t have representation get their music in the hands and ears of today’s music consumers. Gandelsman says, “Physical distribution is hard: there are no stores left!” Therefore, unique live presentation and digital distribution really represent the current marketplace of audio.

*Among the better-known examples of this are Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and Beethoven’s “Turkish” March.