SF Examiner: Concert Review

Posted by Asgerdur Sigurdardottir on April 1, 2013 News | | No comments

The Beijing Guitar Duo brings intricacy and intimacy to their SFP recital

April 1, 2013
by Stephen Smoliar


Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Beijing Guitar Duo (Meng Su and Yameng Wang) gave their first full recital for San Francisco Performances (SFP). Almost exactly a year ago, they were the featured performers Salons series of one-hour recitals at the Hotel Rex; and in 2010 they shared a program with guitarist Manuel Barrueco. Barrueco was their teacher and mentor at the Peabody Conservatory, encouraged them to perform as a duo, and provided several arrangements for their repertoire.

At last year’s Salon, Barrueco’s skills were particular evident in his arrangement of a piano composition by Tan Dun. The Duo performed five of the movements from his Opus 1, Eight Memories in Watercolor; and, during the Q&A that follows every Salon performance, Su talked about playing Barrueco’s version for Dun. Apparently, Dun preferred it to his original piano version.

Last night this piece was performed in its entirety. Listening to the folk-like sonorities of the guitars, one could appreciate how those instruments served Dun’s impressionistic rhetoric more effectively than a piano. I was also struck by a “family resemblance” between Dun’s approach to folk sources from the Hunan Province of China and Béla Bartók’s adaptation of the Eastern European materials he documented during his ethnomusicological research project with Zoltán Kodály. Following Bartók’s approach to composition, each of Dun’s eight movements is a miniaturist study, whose essence was skillfully captured in Barrueco’s arrangement and then deftly executed by the Duo.

I should emphasize that use of the verb “deft.” Both members of the Duo are particularly skillful in the fingering of rapid passages, and they perform together with almost uncanny synchronization. This talent was immediately apparent from the beginning of the evening with their execution of four of the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (in arrangements by Barrueco, Alexandre Lagoya, and the Duo themselves). They selected some of Scarlatti’s more rapid-fire keyboard compositions, easily transferring the required dexterity from one physical setting to another. By performing as a duo, they could also clarify the contrapuntal infrastructure of the original works, particularly where imitative dialog was essential to the rhetoric.

That clarity of interplay was also evident in their performance of Ástor Piazzolla’s three-movement Tango Suite, which he composed for the Assad Duo (Sérgio and Odair). These movements abound with many of the tropes through which Piazzolla put his unique stamp on the tango form, including percussive punctuations that often require striking the instrument in different places. If the Beijing Guitar Duo did not always home in on some of Piazzolla’s more sensuous qualities, they still offered up a clear account of this particularly intricate score.

The other arrangement that the Duo performed was by another guitar duo, that of Christian Gruber and Peter Maklar. This was an arrangement of another piano composition, the “Valses Poéticos” of Enrique Granados. This is a cycle of short waltzes, very much in the spirit of the sixteen waltzes in Johannes Brahms’ Opus 39 but with a bit of Robert Schumann added to the mix through the use of an introduction and the recapitulation of the first waltz as the final movement, both devices from the Opus 2 Papillons cycle. Granados may not have been as imaginative as either of these German composers, but he was a master of the rhetoric of intimacy. The Duo nicely captured that spirit through this guitar arrangement.

Each of the two guitarists also took a single solo. Wang performed Giulio Regondi’s Opus 19 “Rêverie” just before the intermission, a quiet episodic composition with its own characteristic approach to nineteenth-century intimacy. Following the intermission, Su performed the Opus 129 rondo by the twentieth-century Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who moved to the United States with the rise of Fascism (and anti-Semitism) in Italy in 1939. Andrés Segovia was a champion of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music, and Su offered up a particularly engaging account of this rondo.

The encore for the evening was also a rondo. This was an arrangement of “Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou les Maillotins” (the tapping, or the hammers) from François Couperin’s eighteenth book (ordre) of keyboard music. This performance revisited the intricacy that the Duo had brought to their Scarlatti performances, while complementing Dun’s impressionism with Couperin’s musical depiction of a clockwork mechanism. This brought the evening to a spirited conclusion and a sense of satisfaction in such an abundance of technical display.