SF Examiner: Concert Review

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The Beijing Guitar Duo returns to SFP with stunning intimacy and technique

Stephen Smoliar
SF Classical Music Examiner
November 16, 2014

Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the Beijing Guitar Duo of Meng Su and Yameng Wang gave their third concert appearance for San Francisco Performances (SFP). They first appeared on a program with their teacher Manuel Barrueco in 2010 and gave their first full concert program at the end of March in 2013. They have been SFP Guitarists-in-Residence since 2012, giving a one-hour recital at the Hotel Rex in the SFP Salons series in March of that year. Their repertoire is diverse, combining original compositions over a broad scope of music history with imaginative transcriptions.

Their 2013 program provided an introduction to their ability to create their own transcriptions during a section devoted to the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Last night Su returned to keyboard music with a much more ambitious undertaking, transcribing Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite. She spoke briefly about her project, observing that Debussy had composed this suite for four hands on a single piano keyboard. She joked that, because she and Wang had four hands to offer, she thought the transcription would be an easy task and then confessed that it turned out to be a major undertaking.

My composition teacher Ezra Sims wrote a cantata on texts of Chinese poetry, which included the line (spoken in English):

Hard work succeeds, naturally.

This makes a fine motto for the results of Su’s efforts. Mind you, she had at least one noteworthy predecessor: Henri Büsser prepared an orchestration of Debussy’s four-movement suite, almost as rich in instrumental coloration as some of Debussy’s own orchestral writing. I cite Büsser because there was something almost orchestral in Su’s transcription.

Jokes about four hands aside, the guitar is an instrument capable of a highly diverse assortment of sonorities, perhaps even more diverse than that of a concert grand piano. Through her knowledge of those sonorities and how they could be produced, Su elegantly sorted out both the complex interleaving of Debussy’s melodic lines and the rich harmonic progressions in which those lines were embedded. The result was an expression of music with a clarity often muddied by the many reverberations of a piano and just as easily masked by the full force of a symphony orchestra. This was a performance that caught the descriptive connotations of each movement (very much in the spirit of Debussy’s piano preludes) while also offering penetrating insights into just what made the music tick.

In addition to a rich assortment of duo work, the program also included solo portions for each guitarist. The selections tended to dwell on salon-style repertoire from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Su chose three short compositions by Francisco Tárrega, each a “character piece” with its own distinctive approach to virtuoso embellishment of its thematic material. Wang chose two somewhat more abstract pieces by the Paraguayan guitarist Agustín Barrios, decidedly more modest in both scope and expression.

On the contemporary side they performed Elizabeth Nonemaker’s “Old Habits, Similar Patterns,” which involved extended percussion sections (tapping different parts of the guitar body) of impressive rhythmic sophistication, alternating with melodic material suggestive of flamenco style. They also performed the first of Sérgio Assad’s Jobiniana compositions, written in homage to Antônio Carlos Jobim in the spirit with which Heitor Villa-Lobos honored Johann Sebastian Bach with his Bachianas Brasileiras compositions. The program then concluded with transcriptions of piano compositions by Isaac Albéniz (notable in their original form for passages that evoke guitar sonorities). The two encores featured a short piece by Bach and a traditional Chinese tune.

Taken as a whole, the program offered a journey through both discovery and familiarity, all presented through a rhetoric of intimacy well served by the impressive acoustics of the St. Mark’s sanctuary.