The exciting American guitarist Eliot Fisk arrived in Highlands for his August 1 solo concert with a trustworthy Thomas Humphrey 1988 Millennium guitar and crippling virtuoso program ready to pummel the capacity audience with his own brand of artistic edgework. If you are not familiar with this player please read his vita at [inactive 11/07]. The program bio is exhausting enough but here, after the fourth encore, many were shaking their heads, half amused, half wondering; and many were exhilarated, ready for a Thanksgiving caliber nap.

Fisk’s adventurous performance is a high-energy act that pins you in the seat while his interpretive powers draw you to its edge – for two hours. It is not enough to suggest he is a scholar, emotive player, innovative technician, brilliant interpreter and amiable human. It goes much deeper, to what Garcia Lorca called “the duende,” the unseen creative ‘blood spirit’ evoked during human performance of poetry, dance or music. Some might call it The Muse.

Whatever it is you had better be ready, for this is an E ticket ride. Very Big Art.

The program opened with an Isaac Albeniz sandwich – “Torre Bermeja” and “Sevilla” on the ends, a Habañera by Ernesto Halffter in the middle. The lyrical melodies, brisk scale work, lusty rhythms, and that ever-present Spanish augmented second were a perfect entrée for the guitar. The Halffter has an interesting coda, and the repeated A section of “Sevilla” was played as the opening bars instead of the more familiar truncated Segovia version. These are Fisk’s own arrangements therefore devilishly difficult while faithful to the composer’s score. During breaks in material Fisk could be seen conducting unheard beats, totally one with the moment.

Next were four keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti: K. numbers 380 (“The Military”), 322, 213, and 492. Fisk studied with Scarlatti scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick while at Yale, and these pieces simply bristled from the instrument with cross-string ornaments, autonomous counterpoint, articulated scales and apeggiated chords in much the same way you’d expect from a harpsichord. A remarkable display of both authentic style and vigorous energy.

Next came J. S. Bach’s C Major violin Sonata (S.1005), consisting of four movements including one of the longest fugues in the repertoire. Here the challenge is to keep the work fresh over such a long span of time. This was no problem as Fisk took each movement – Adagio, Fuga, Largo, and the ending Allegro assai – into his personal well of artistry and gave dynamic shape, note color and just the right pace to independent voices creating tasteful while furious and poetic identity. The last movement was blinding fast yet clearly articulated.

At intermission the head-shaking started. This is the 22nd edition of the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, expertly programmed by Artistic Director and pianist William Ransom. Fisk was on the schedule for an ensemble evening, yet the addition of a solo appearance was viewed with relish. Veteran patrons were pleased to hear the guitarist again after his triumphant appearance on this series two years ago. Students and the cognoscenti were in two distinct camps, one bravely holding opinion in reserve until the program’s end, the other wide-eyed and disbelieving of the pyrotechnic playing and sheer power of personality. Said one guitarist, “When I hear this guy I either stop playing, or I start .”

The house returned en masse to hear four of the seven pieces that make up “American Bouquet” by George Rochberg. This is a group the composer calls “Versions of Popular Music,” written for Fisk and featuring themes from the great standards – “Liza” and “Deep Purple” plus originals “How to Explain” and “Notre Dame Blues.” To borrow from my own review of the recording, “These wonderful melodies are framed amid ‘introductions, transitions, and codas,’ in a way to give haunting memory of their original setting. In the original compositions are memories, deeply embedded images of another time while a swirling new sound carries them forward. The really hot one… is ‘Notre Dame Blues.’ Rochberg’s augmented 12-bar blues format and Fisk’s headbanger enthusiasm make for rock concert reactions. It’s blues on steroids….” Fisk is very much at home in these complex scores – deft composing and playing!

In a tip to Appalachia, Robert Beaser’s “Shenandoah” came next. Beaser and Fisk were classmates at Yale, and their enduring friendship has produced some stunning new compositions for solo guitar and for guitar and flute. This major solo work is flirting with a familiar folk melody in much the same way as Rochberg treated the old standards. Here the melody is a little more straightforward and its treatment less atmospheric. It’s not for players with a weak heart though, and – again – it’s devilishly difficult.

Then Fisk immediately tore into four violin Capricci by Niccolo Paganini – numbers 20, 6, 13, and the famous set of variations, no. 24. Again these featured heroic playing, brilliant execution, brute force, compelling “La Campanella” and brilliant passagework. To hear his recording of all 24 is one thing, but to hear his realizations live is finally to understand the magnitude of the task while enjoying the magic of a true virtuoso at work.

Perhaps we’ve lost our compass a little in recent years. We’ve been sold authentic “period” performances and come to expect live performance at the same standard as recordings, often experiencing excavated aural museum exhibits or robotic note-perfect renderings. But here is a player who inhabits the style of each era as though one of its own creators, delivering immediate presence and production for You, in This Room, Right Now. In the process, Fisk sometimes misses the utmost in polish and perfect execution. That said, who can argue in favor of such things when you have a chance to dance with The Muse? It’s as though a blue shaft of light appears from above and he directs this energy for the listener. He simply keeps digging all night – every piece, every phrase – not to duplicate something previously rehearsed but to create something new and fresh for now . Perhaps it is this quality alone that makes him so compelling, exciting, engaging, provocative and thrilling to hear/watch/experience.

The encores were “Choros No. 1” by H. Villa-Lobos, “Virgilio” by Antonio Lauro, the Prelude in E major from the third violin Sonata (S.1006) of Bach, and a touching arrangement of the violin duo by Luciano Berio (r.i.p. 5/27/2003) titled “Aldo,” after the composer’s brother.

At this point Fisk took the measure of a standing, cheering and exhausted audience, and bid Good Night with a smile and wave.

A good thing at that point. Nearly all the oxygen was used up.

Very Big Art.