“It looks so easy and natural, I could probably do that.” Whether in athletics, acting, musical performance, or many other human endeavors, the truly great convey that somewhat misleading impression. What they do appears to be so effortless and natural that it makes you want to go out and give it a try – and trying is almost always the result. This phenomenon was experienced by more than 100 people on November 9 at the Century Center in Carrboro, where the Triangle Guitar Society presented Ana Vidovic, the remarkable 23-year old classical guitarist from Croatia. She has been an internationally recognized concert artist since the age of 11, and has won numerous competitions. A recent graduate of the Peabody Conservatory where she studied with Manuel Barrueco, Vidovic tours all over the world and has been the subject of a documentary by Croatian director Petar Krelja.

I recently met an old classmate who is now a member of a well-known ensemble. He told me of a conversation he had with one of the biggest names in the guitar world of the last half-century. This artist, who had been the idol of so many of today’s great players, readily admitted that he would not have had a chance if he had to compete with the technical level of today’s guitarists. False modesty aside, there is much truth to this. The level of playing has risen to such heights that in some competitions, players who would have dazzled audiences in the past don’t even make it into the final rounds. Vidovic is an artist who exemplifies this seemingly evolutionary advance in guitar skills and we are fortunate to be able to experience her talent.

This was my first visit to the Century Center. It is a lovely ballroom-type venue and there was an excellent turnout on a perfect fall afternoon. Vidovic opened her program with the first of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonatas, in an arrangement by Barrueco performed in its original key of g minor. From the first notes of the Adagio you knew you were in the presence of a musician who understands and knows how to express the phrasing and style of Bach and for whom technical obstacles do not exist. The Fuga is probably the best-known section of this sonata (usually played in a minor on guitar), and she made the voices sound distinct and linear in what is a crushingly difficult feat to achieve on the guitar. The Siciliana had a wonderful rhythmic lilt and the Presto gave her a chance to really let loose with an astounding display of fast, clean playing. However, the technique that is in such abundance is never used as an end but is merely the means to bring out the style and spirit of the composition.

I have said this before, but one of the hallmarks of a great artist is the ability to play very familiar works yet bring out something new – even to people who have heard the works hundreds of times. To guitarists at least, Federico Moreno Torroba’s Sonatina is a very familiar piece. Her phrasing in the opening of the first movement and the entire beautiful slow movement put her own stamp on this work, and brought you into the composition as if hearing it for the first time. Vidovic does not resort to any extraneous motions with her hands or her body language. She has one of the most relaxed and motionless right hands I have ever seen, resulting in the illusion that her fingers don’t even appear to be moving at all! Despite her incredible facility, she plays as if technique is the servant of the composer and empty flash is meaningless. She reflects a deeper understanding and commitment. Although she played as if the guitar were an extension of her body, there also seemed to be an almost contradictory feeling that you could hear the expression of the pure music as if the instrument weren’t even part of the process.

Intermission had that buzz going around with glazed-over looks that are only present when you realize you are in the presence of an extraordinary artist. She returned to perform what is a regrettably under-played work, the “Sonata Clasica” by Manuel Ponce, a well-known 20th century guitar composer who frequently collaborated with Andres Segovia. As the name suggests, this is an homage to the typical classical period sonata, and it is one of Ponce’s finest works. My one criticism became more evident in this work: Vidovic tends to keep her right hand over the sound hole nearly all the time, resulting in a very beautiful, but consistent sound. A little more tonal variety would have added more spice to an already delicious recipe.

Right now, Vidovic’s only recording is on the Naxos label, but I learned from the artist that several more are in the can and ready to be released shortly. There is no shortage of outstanding young guitarists all over the world, but there are still only a few who have that certain indefinable something that makes them rise above even that lofty company. Ana Vidovic is such an artist.