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Wednesday night's Eastern Music Festival performance was a guitar extravaganza, given over to primarily 20th-century guitar music featuring living composers. I had not heard any of the pieces, save one. The first half was performed by Kami Rowan (b. 1964), JIJI (Jiyeon Kim, b. 1993), and Jason Vieaux (b. 1973); the second half featured the EMF guitar students.
First up was Abend Dämmerung (Evening Twilight) by Kami Rowan, a song cycle for soprano and guitar performed by Rowan on guitar and Hilary Webb-Propst, soprano. Rowan explained that the work evokes dream-like images; it is laid out in five movements. I first heard this piece some 25 years ago.
Webb-Propst's beautiful, clear voice began the cycle, unaccompanied, with the guitar gently commenting in this setting of the poem "Doom." The guitarist kept a close eye on the singer making for seamless ensemble. The second movement ("Dreaming Fields") is instrumental. Rowan's playing brought out the juxtaposition of the gentle with the more march-like rhythms.
"Moonlight Night" was absolutely gorgeous, with Webb-Propst perfectly conveying the flowing beauty of both the words and music. "Incantation" was a dramatically spoken movement. The ethereal finale, "Within Eternity," was about as good a performance as one could have asked for—perfect synchronicity with lyric, soaring phrases, and passion contrasting with gentleness.
The next three pieces were performed by JIJI, who expressed her appreciation for being at EMF. She also shared that she had studied with Vieaux when she was younger. Her set started with a piece written some four hundred years before Rowan's: a loose transcription of the 1613 sacred motet "Occhi io vissi di voi" ("I lived through your eyes") by Claudia Sessa (c.1570-1617), an Italian composer and a nun at the convent of Santa Maria Annunciata in Milan. This short piece begins with a seemingly improvised introduction (sensitive and wonderful) before what one assumes is the motet, begins.
Gulli Björnsson (b. 1991) was born in Iceland and now teaches at the University of Kansas. The composer's 2019 guitar composition, "Dynjandi" (translated, "Thunderous") was inspired by a series of waterfalls in the composer's homeland. JIJI explained that the work perhaps captures "the beauty and the intensity of a magnificent Icelandic waterfall." Indeed, the piece was mesmerizing, with sections of non-stop plucking fingers.
Last, but certainly not least, was Caprice No. 24 written for violin by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). The composer was known as a violin virtuoso, although his first instrument was the guitar. This transcription is by Australian guitar wizard John Williams. The work is a series of variations on a simple theme. Each variation seems more impressive than the previous, each demonstrating a different guitar technique. From flying, plucking fingers to arpeggios up and down the fingerboard, with some lyric contrasts, the piece is a real crowd pleaser. The large crowd, obviously wowed, leapt to its feet in appreciation.
The first half closed out with Vieaux playing Four Paths of Light (2020) by Pat Metheny (b. 1954), which was composed for the performer. While it would seem that the first two sets would be hard to upstage, Vieaux was strictly business, and that business was playing this four-movement set all by memory. He is a monster of a player. From strong, assertive perpetual motion to sublime "flamenco" five-note tremolos, the entire 20-minute composition is a seemingly unending compendium of strokes and timbres this six-string instrument is capable of. Vieaux's commitment, his unerring musicality, and his incredible dynamic and emotional breadth brightly shone throughout. Again, the bedazzled crowd noisily expressed its appreciation.
After intermission, four different composers were represented, each piece written for a different combination of instruments. "Echoes" (2018) by José Mora-Jiménez (b. 1977) is written for oboe (Isa DiFiore) and guitar (Penelope Shvarts). This five-minute work begins with the oboe presenting an idea which the guitar immediately reiterates. DiFiore had the opportunity to spin out lovely, long lines. Shvarts' strong playing was front and center later, when she took over as the leader.
Quatre Pièces Brèves (1933) by Frank Martin (1890-1974) brought guitarist Gwenyth Aggeler to the stage. Each movement paints a different mood; the opening Prelude begins with a melancholic melody before faster sections appear, which Aggeler excitingly negotiated. Air reflects some Baroque aesthetic, while Plainte featured a melody accompanied by a strumming chord before a fast flourish at the end. The finale Comme une Gigue was full of energy. Aggeler's concentrated performance and technical abilities were striking.
"Magic Mirror" (2012) by Alan Thomas for guitar (Mia Padilla) and piano (Darin Goodman), is a fascinating composition that features a strict canon, where each instrument "is locked into" playing exactly what the other instrument plays at a specified time later. Here, when the guitar goes up, the piano goes down: contrary imitation. The completely winning composition was amazingly satisfying, with both Padilla and Goodman matching each other's change in dynamics or tempo.
"Alki Point" (2019) by Kevin Callahan (b. 1958) is written for guitar quartet, so Shvarts, Aggeler, and Padilla returned to the stage and were joined by Tucker Gamble. The piece featured melodies from different players accompanied by patterns from the others as well as perfect unisons, all mixed with what the composer described as "minimalist elements." The ensemble was tight, which resulted in a cohesion throughout the work.
The program explored a lot of terrain new to the audience, but because of the high-quality playing and great literature presented, all were won over by both the artists and the students. Many of these students and perhaps others can be heard at EMF's Final Guitar Concert on Saturday evening, July 30 at 6:15pm in the Carnegie Room of the Hege Library on the Guilford College campus in a performance with no admission fee.