Tallahassee, Florida, circa 1973: A roomful of classical guitarists are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a young, already mythical figure. A somewhat gangly, small and powerfully built teenager with an infectious, impish smile, powerful hands that looked like they could crush a coconut, and outrageous mutton chops took the stage and began to play. Mouths were agape with incredulity and the sensation of minds being totally blown away was palpable. From that moment on, at least for me, the conception of what the classical guitar can do was totally altered.

Nearly forty years later, Eliot Fisk is still playing “you’ve gotta hear it to believe it” recitals as a gratifyingly nearly full house at Duke University’s Reynolds Theater experienced the “Fisk effect.”  Fisk has played in this area before, including a solo recital presented by the short-lived Recital Series of the North Carolina Symphony, but this was his first full-length recital at Duke and we have Duke Performances to thank for that.

The evening began with a set of five Latin American pieces all arranged by Alirio Diaz, a renowned guitarist and arranger from Venezuela. This program showcased all aspects of what the guitar is and could be, and these lovely dance-like pieces emphasized the folk aspect of the instrument and its indigenous Latin rhythms and harmony. They were played with spirit, joy and authenticity, and it was apparent that despite having played these pieces thousands of times, Fisk still exudes the wonder of musical discovery and communicates that to the audience.

The first set was lovely, but truth be told, there are now hundreds of guitarists who can do the same. It wasn’t until the next group of pieces that the unique Fisk magic was fully revealed, and one can literally hear audible gasps of disbelief from the now fully converted congregation. While at Yale University, Fisk studied the works of Domenico Scarlatti, composer of over 550 harpsichord sonatas, with Ralph Kirkpatrick, the recognized expert of these works and namesake of the “K” number that catalogs this musically lucrative output. Throughout his career, Fisk has returned to this huge fount of spicy material, but although he is not especially unique in that regard, his performances are. For this program he played his own transcriptions of five Scarlatti sonatas. I am reminded of the old Memorex commercial where the guy is sitting in a big chair listening to music and his hair is blown back from the force. As I looked around I could see people stunned by what they were hearing. Part of this is Fisk’s liberal and personal use of ornamentation that adds further decoration to an already bullet-train cascade of notes.

Like many artists who push (in Fisk’s case, shoves and destroys) the envelope, there were, and still are, detractors of his style and musical aesthetic. One example of this was his performance of his arrangement of the third of the six suites for solo cello by J.S. Bach. These works, like Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, are generally treated with utmost reverence. Fisk’s arrangement, that includes bits of questionable re-harmonization, may have had many purists, cellists or not, recoiling in horror. All I can say to that is the profound advice of “lighten up.” This was a refreshing, respectful and revelatory venture into this suite and Fisk performed it with sensitivity, energy and commitment to the spirit of the original.   

After hearing Fisk perform at least a dozen times since that first time long ago and far away, it is frightening that he still seems to be improving. While his technique was always to covet and marvel at, in the past it sometimes felt like a runaway train and beauty of sound suffered. This concert revealed a maturity and refinement of every aspect of playing without any decrease of the fire and passion of youth.

Despite the classical guitar being called and thought of as a “Spanish guitar,” some of the most well-known Spanish works for the instrument all were written originally for piano. The first set featured three of these: La Maja de Goya by Enrique Granados, Habanera by Ernesto Halffter, and Sevilla by Isaac Albeniz. The Granados is especially plaintive and lovely and gave Fisk a rare chance – for this program – to play slow and lyrically. Sevilla, describing the city of Seville, was sultry and evocative.

The remainder of the concert falls into the category, technique wise, of “I just heard it, but there must be some trick” despite the fact that it was just a guy on stage with a guitar and a small microphone about two feet in front of him. As far as I know, there is no other person on this planet who plays Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XI for solo guitar. It was written for, and in collaboration with, Fisk around 1987 and is one of a series of “Sequenzas” for nearly every western instrument. Written as the musical equivalent of an abstract painting, a brief slow introduction is followed by nearly 12 minutes of hell breaking loose and a performance of unimaginable difficulty. Despite the “alien” quality of this music – even in 2012 – the audience appeared to be genuinely engaged. With barely a second to catch his breath (which is another trademark of Fisk’s style) he then launched into the very tonal but equally impossible violin caprices of Paganini. Yes, he recorded all of them, but here he only did four, ending with the famous No. 24.

You’d think he’d be tired by now? Not a chance. I’ve seen him do as many as ten, but tonight he only did four encores. His final one was El Colibri by Sagreras, a showpiece that has been his closer for decades. He had a bit of trouble with a few passages, so still bent on improvement after two hours 10 minutes of playing, he repeated the whole thing. Nailed it!