A guitar, a chair, years of practice and knowledge, and creativity are all that a classical guitarist has when he/she faces an audience, completely alone – no accompanist, no music. This is the epitome of performance without a net. Sometimes you soar and sometimes you crash land. Between these extremes is a state of being so careful and trying to avoid falling that you forget why you are there in the first place. That was the overall impression I was left with after a guitar recital by Elliot Frank at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Sunday, June 1. This was the final concert on the 2002-3 “Sights and Sounds on Sundays” series, sponsored by the museum and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.

Elliot Frank, director of guitar studies at East Carolina University, has a long and distinguished resume including prizes in international competitions and recitals throughout the U.S. and Europe. He is also the director of the ECU Summer Guitar Workshop – more information can be obtained at http://www.ecu.edu/music/guitar/ [inactive 4/09].

Sunday brought a brief respite from the incessant rain we’ve been having, so the nearly half-filled auditorium was a good turnout on a day when most people were outside enjoying the beautiful weather. The program was titled “Music for Children of all Ages” – a phrase that could probably be applied to most recitals: I didn’t hear any unifying thread running through the works performed. Frank began with a group of pieces by the Venezuelan composer Antonio Lauro (1919-86). In the guitar world, Lauro is known, mainly, as the composer of a series of works collectively known as “Venezuelan Waltzes,” each having its own descriptive name. These are charming, evocative works that are fun to play and very audience-friendly. Lauro also wrote a longer work called “Suite Venezolana,” from which Frank played two movements to kick off the program. The opening section, “Registro,” is a very difficult, flowing prelude – not your typical “warm-up” piece. It was dispatched in a workmanlike manner with little attention to the dynamic and harmonic subtleties, which otherwise render it a technical etude. Three of the “Venezuelan Waltzes” described above were up next. For an effective and “dance-like” performance of these works it is essential to pay particular attention to the separation of the melody and accompaniment lines and to the shifting rhythmic accents that make these pieces so charming. I was unable to discern these features from Frank’s performance. One of the most popular works in this genre, “Natalia,” suffered the most. There should be a shifting 6/8 to 3/4 pattern with clearly defined lines, but this performance came off as a homogeneous succession of eighth notes.

The next group was a series of works by Agustín Barrios-Mangoré, another composer probably unknown to anyone but classical guitarists. He was born in Paraguay in 1885, and much of his life and work remained obscure even to guitarists until the 1970s, when a treasure trove of his music was uncovered and worked its way into the standard repertoire. One of his more well-known compositions, in three parts, is “La Catedral.” Frank chose to omit the first section, “Preludio,” which left it unbalanced and incomplete. He described the two movements he did play as a contrast between the peace of a church and the teeming streets beyond. The “Andante Religioso” section is supposed to replicate an organist playing Bach and requires a full, sustained sound if the player is to begin to convey that impression. This was a very choppy, jagged and rhythmically unstable reading. The subsequent “Allegro Solemne” section displayed some excellent technical proficiency.

The second half began with two quasi-jazz etudes by Matthew Dunne (b.1960). Both of these had some very interesting jazz harmonies and rhythmic quirks, but they overstayed their welcome – less would have been more. “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by Francisco Tarrega is a guitar war-horse but one that never fails to delight when played well. This work involves the guitar “tremolo” technique that is quite different from that same term as applied to bowed strings. Frank’s rendition of this fell below the necessary speed required for this technique to make it effective, and the long dynamic build-up was replaced by a mid-level volume that grew tiresome. The afternoon’s program ended with a set of works by José Luis Merlin (b.1953), one called “Cathedral of the Birds” and the other, “Suite del Recuerdo.” These are unexceptional compositions made even more so by the relentless sameness of the performances and the “correctness” of the rhythms at the heart of these works.

Reviews of concerts are just that – one person’s opinion of one performance in the life of a musician. Even well-known virtuosos have bad days, and if that happens when you are writing about it, then you should describe it that way. I had never met Frank before this concert or heard him play. Despite the importance of first impressions, I would never presume to judge a musician from one encounter and I do not do so now. Frank obviously has a lot of technique in his arsenal, but for the most part this afternoon’s playing was devoid of passion or any real involvement past the notes on the page. It is perhaps a cliché, but a performer needs to speak and communicate with the audience. Despite a flurry of notes, there seemed to be only silence.