Local classical guitar enthusiasts recently had a rare opportunity to experience two extraordinary but very different guitarists in two beautiful recital halls. On March 2, as part of the Great Artist Series, the North Carolina Symphony presented Eliot Fisk at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, and the night before, Elon University and the Piedmont Classical Guitar Society presented Benjamin Verdery at Whitley Hall on the Elon campus.

Fisk is not just one of the greatest guitarists in the history of the instrument – he is a phenomenon. Long after one leaves one of his recitals one remains in a state of both awe and disbelief. Fisk walked onto a beautifully lit stage, bare except for a raised platform and a lone chair. He is a most gracious performer who put the audience at ease with brief but enlightening remarks before almost all of the works on his program. Neither pedantic nor condescending, his manner immediately bridged the performer-vs.-audience chasm and then we were off on what can only be described as an exhilarating ride that no one present will soon forget.

The program began with Grand Solo, Op. 14, by the Spanish composer Fernando Sor, a contemporary of Beethoven. The work, in the style of an opera overture, was played with great energy. The remainder of the first half of the program was taken up with Baroque works that gave the audience the opportunity to hear one of the unique aspects of Fisk’s playing. While attending Yale University, Fisk studied with Ralph Kirkpatrick, the celebrated harpsichordist and Scarlatti scholar. As a result, Fisk’s playing of Baroque pieces is filled with ornamentation that is at once exciting to hear and historically accurate. First was a set of keyboard variations by Frescobaldi that has been popular among guitarists since it was first transcribed by Andrés Segovia. A lovely minor theme is followed by six short variations. Next were three Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas transcribed for the guitar. Scarlatti’s sonatas–of which there are nearly 550–are favorites of guitarists since almost all of them work quite well on the guitar, and Fisk displayed his amazing technical facility and ornamentation in these works. The first half concluded with another transcription, this time from the unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas for violin by Bach. A highly ornamented Adagio was followed by one of Bach’s most famous fugues, which exists in versions for both lute and organ. A very delicate and pastoral Siciliana preceded the final Presto, which is a misnomer, given the incredible speed of Fisk’s performance of this movement. The audience seemed to be out of breath and in a bit of shock as the first half ended.

The second half began with three Spanish pieces transcribed from original piano scores. “Torre Bermeja” and “Sevilla” by Isaac Albeniz are staples of guitarists’ arsenals and Fisk played them with great energy and freedom. A third work, Ernesto Halffter’s “Habañera,” did not rise to the level of the Albeniz pieces; both the audience and the performer seemed to lose interest in this bland composition.

Next up was a fascinating rendition of what is usually the very beautiful, simple American folksong “Shenandoah.” An arrangement consisting of a set of variations was written for Fisk by Robert Beaser, Chair of the Composition Department at the Juilliard School of Music. Presented simply at first, this familiar tune is transformed into an incredible virtuosic display in terms of both composition and execution. The program ended with a performance that can only be described as “you had to hear it to believe it.” Most readers are familiar with Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin, of which the 24th, used by Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawksi and countless others as themes for their compositions, is the most famous. Fisk has transcribed (and recorded) all 24, and he played four of them in Raleigh to conclude the program. His playing was so seamless and precise that one would think that they had been played with a bow.

A rousing standing ovation exploded from the stunned audience and he returned for three encores – the popular “Recuerdos de L’Alhambra” by Tarrega, the Prelude from the E major unaccompanied violin sonata by Bach, and a stirring Flamenco selection that ended the evening.

The North Carolina Symphony is to be commended for this relatively new series in which they present solo artists and chamber groups at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater. This space has wonderful acoustics and aesthetics.

Benjamin Verdery, Chair of the Guitar Department at Yale University, is an eclectic musician and a guitarist of boundless originality and range. His performance in Whitley Hall at Elon University gave a small but wildly enthusiastic crowd a rare opportunity for this area to experience his talents. His was not a typical classical guitar recital but instead ran the gamut from a rarely-performed transcription of Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite to arrangements of songs of Prince and Jimi Hendrix. He also played several of his own compositions and a captivating and beautiful transcription of Mozart’s Adagio, K.540, originally for piano. This work literally drew the audience into every note and phrase as Verdery gave one of the most sensitive and beautifully wrought performances I have ever heard anywhere.

As if this wasn’t enough, Verdery also used electronics for digital delay and loops in a captivating work named “Soepa,” written for him by Ingram Marshall. This type of performance can often become gimmicky and tedious but this was a beautifully-written work that used the electronics to great effect.

It is a shame that there were not more people in attendance for this remarkable musician in what is a perfect room for a guitar recital. Whitley Hall is a gem that more people from the Triangle area need to seek out and discover.

We are pleased to introduce Jeffrey Rossman, a resident of Durham since 1983, to readers of cvnc. He holds a Bachelors degree in Guitar Performance and a Masters Degree in Music Theory, both from Florida State University and has performed as a guitarist with the North Carolina Theater, the Choral Society of Durham and–since 1990–during Duke Chapel’s Christmas Eve services. In 1999 he finally realized a gnawing desire to play an orchestral instrument and began cello lessons. He is currently a student of Fred Raimi and a member of the symphony orchestras of UNC and Duke. When he is not struggling with either his four- or six-string instruments, he works as a computer analyst at Duke University Medical Center.