Two quartets in last Friday evening's performance at The Royal Opera House of Musical Arts added up to an orchestra in texture and harmony. The “Costa Rica Virtuoso Guitars” (CGCR) proved to be more than the sum of their parts, whether performing as a quartet or an octet.
Backed by a String Quartet, the four Guitarists sat front of stage and performed the entire two hour programme by heart, without prompt or hesitation. The virtuoso elements of their playing came to the fore in fast solo runs and flourishes, but together they covered many roles and styles. Their music is not jazz, not Latin in the popular sense, nor Flamenco - though elements of all these are apparent – but inhabits the realm of Classical Spanish guitar, grounded firmly in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The first piece, “Danza Al Viento” (Dance in the wind) was composed by one of the CGCR musicians, Edmund Nuñez-Incer. The soothing, calm first violin theme was passed to viola and cello while the guitars provided percussive, arpeggio or tremolo backing. The balance between both quartets created a perfect blend in texture, and an almost hypnotic effect.
The next two pieces, it was explained by Nicolas Aguilar, were arranged by composer Alonso Torres. “Abril” had a warm, sensuous yet rhythmic melody, played mostly by Nuñez-Incer, against a significant cello bass part, while “Eso es Imposible” featured romantic melodies and syncopated chords on guitars against sustained strings. It was sometimes hard to see who was playing the melody as it was passed around between the guitarists so imperceptibly.
The extensive, “Uarekeba” by famous Brazilian composer, Sergio Assad was performed by guitars alone. It was in a contemporary language, opening with a fast, modern waltz followed by a slow middle section using extended harmony, then a return to the opening ideas.
“Cumba-Quin”, meaning ‘Congas and Clavés’ from its Cuban-Guatemalan roots by American film composer, Carlos Rivera, featured the body of the guitar being hit as percussion, and used all sorts of instrumental effects – dampening strings, harmonics, imitation between guitars, rhythmic strumming and syncopation. Throughout the concert the body of the guitar was used as percussion, highlighting the complex Spanish rhythms from the ten national composers featured in this programme.
It was followed by a substantial piece to conclude the first part, “Retorno; Concierto for guitar quartet” by Edín Solís. There was lovely interplay between the two ensembles with the strings taking on the orchestral breadth. It was a lush arrangement and completely captivating. The second movement, “Return to the Air”, was a slow, lyrical waltz with delightful interplay of textures beginning with a vibrant cello melody played beautifully by Sonia Bruno Alfaro. The final, “Return to the South” recalled Rodriguez’ Andalusia with its crisp rhythms and irregular accents. There were fugal elements and a juxtaposition of Baroque and modal jazz harmony.
The second half’s, “Quiccan” by American composer, Andrew York was written especially for the CCGCR. Its syncopated minimalism in a calming 6/8 time developed a neo-classical Spanish style. “Alfonsina y el Mar” by Argentinian, Ramirez brought the string quartet back on stage in a melancholic, chromatic arrangement by French guitarist, Roland Dynes. It was a slow ballad creation, deliciously rich and lush, recalling Astor Piazzolla’s romantic suspended harmony and the most compelling performance of South America’s Latin tapestry of the night.
“Preludio y Alborada” by guitarist Nuñez-Incer, dedicated to his wife, opened with guitars only in a simple, gentle melody played on the lower strings. It was a mesmerising, accessible piece with tinges of Philip Glass about it. The strings joined in the ‘Alborada’ with a fluid, shifting tonality to end the piece to great effect.
“La Trampa” by Eduardo Martín was built over a bass riff in a contemporary, filmic style. The atonal guitar flourishes suggested the uncertain progression of a tramp’s life, while the lyrical unison resolution at the centre perhaps some temporary peace until a return to an uneven metre and the opening bass riff confirmed his destiny.
The CGCR commissioned Alonso Torres to compose the lush, romantic Calypso, “Arrecife Urbano” for the whole ensemble, putting the emphasised calypso rhythms in the guitars parts.
The last number, a short and rhythmic “Noche Caribe” by Solís integrated the two ensembles with syncopated melodies and echoes of Grapelli and Django Reinhardt, and guitar-percussion conjuring the sounds and insects of a Caribbean Night. A prepared Encore, “Alice Dances” by Martín was a flamboyant Flamenco piece, with short guitar solos and the percussive sounds of clicking heels and castanets to send the audience out into the mild Muscat night.