What happens when you put one of Australia’s finest Verdi baritones together with a pair of up-and-coming young guitarists? You can find out when José Carbó unveils the fruits of his latest labours singing songs and arias arranged for voice and two guitars along with Andrew Blanch and Ariel Nurhadi. The José Carbó Trio’s debut recital goes by the name L’Heure Exquise (The Exquisite Hour), named for the famous chanson by French composer Reynaldo Hahn, and features music by, among others, Schubert, Fauré, Debussy and Verdi, re-imagined for their very own unusual and uniquely colourful musical forces.

José CarbóThe José Carbó Trio. Photos © Will Perez Ronderos

Andrew, how did you come to form a trio with Ariel and José?

In short, Canberra’s 2015 Voices in the Forest needed two guitarists to accompany José as well as tenor Diego Torre, on a couple of songs. We had a great time playing together and stayed in touch. By coincidence, a year or so later, all three of us wound up living in Sydney with schedules allowing some regular rehearsal time. José had a concept in his head for a classical recital program, and we got to work on a few songs at first just to see if it was possible, and it all went from there.

 Ariel, how often are you able to get together. And what is it like in the rehearsal room?

When José was living in Sydney, we rehearsed once a week. Rehearsals are fewer now that he lives in the Gold Coast hinterland, yet surprisingly still frequent. We just have to coordinate them around José’s Sydney performance schedule and also make trips up to his place, which for me double up as holidays! Our rehearsals aren’t all that typical. The process of arranging and rehearsing overlaps considerably and as such we spend lot of time simply discussing the music. One fascinating thing about this approach is that it has allowed a collective interpretation of each piece to arise quite organically.

José, does the trio have a musical philosophy or concentrate on particular kinds of music? And how did you choose the songs for this first recital?

Our philosophy is simply to arrange and present our favourite art songs, arias, folk songs and popular standards from all genres with a two-guitar accompaniment. Our first project is a classical recital. Subsequent projects will explore a varied repertoire. But we will only present songs that pass our criteria for two-guitar accompaniment. These are songs and arias that had made a deep emotional impression on me throughout my career, that I only recently imagined with guitar accompaniment. I suggested these pieces to Andrew and Ariel as candidates for this first Trio project. Andrew and Ariel then looked at the pieces to check their feasibility to set for two guitars. Being able to present this with two guitars still causes me to pinch myself, because it was an idea that I had that I never thought possible. Andrew and Ariel have the given me the gift of their musicality and technique to be able to realise this vision.

José Carbó

Andrew, do you always agree on repertoire, or is it a case of give or take?

I would say we pretty much all agree. We have a good listen beforehand to know what we’re getting into, and then after we’ve put together the arrangement it’s just a case of, does this piece work with two guitars? It’s usually pretty obvious. Some pieces use the guitars more spectacularly than others, but then that’s the case with music in general I guess – the accompaniment assumes different roles and can be more or less involved.

So, José, how different from singing with piano is it performing with two guitars?

It’s chalk and cheese! The volume a piano makes creates a setting in which a singer can emit far more volume in all registers, therefore making it far easier to maintain a comfortable flow of air through the cords. Singing alongside two guitars that emit much less sound than a piano, demands a far greater control of one’s mid voice and pianissimo. Vocal colour and texture also need adjusting so the audience can experience a duet between the voice and guitars rather than a sense of the guitars just accompanying. Painstaking, bar-by-bar consideration of our arrangements has finally resulted in a program where every piece is perfectly adapted for this new and vastly different soundscape.

Ariel, who does the arrangements, and have there been things you’ve wanted to do but just don’t fit the combination?

Our arrangements are produced in collaboration. That said, there are several stages to their development. Andrew and I usually begin adapting a piece for the guitars before we workshop it together with José and make changes. José always has heaps of ideas on how to improve them, and he brings an open-minded, non-guitarist perspective, as well as a focus on story-telling that forces us to think outside the box and consider things we normally wouldn’t. With every piece we’ve done, I think we’ve shown that three minds work better than one!

To begin with, José has a pretty good sense of what will work on two guitars and I can’t recall him proposing anything entirely unfeasible. This is not to say there haven’t been real challenges, however. To adapt some pieces for the guitars and turn them into convincing arrangements requires some crafty solutions including the use of unusual scordaturas, the capo across select strings, and a range of extended techniques. It also calls for a healthy dose of creative license to add or change things in keeping with the spirit of the music. All this is really to say, ‘when there’s a will, there’s a way.’

José Carbó

Andrew, what are the challenges for guitarists accompanying a baritone with a seriously impressive set of operatic lungs?

Singing down has never been a problem for José, besides which we reinforce the sound in performance with amplification. He listens keenly to us and adapts himself as he sees fit. What is different though, that I didn’t really consider beforehand, is that José’s ‘instrument’ as it were, has a bloom that must take its time to sound its best. That time varies depending on the acoustics of the room and other factors. The more we play together the more all three of us develop this instinctual awareness for each other’s use of space, movement and bloom of sound.

José, what kind of history do you have with this material, and how personal are some of these songs for you?

This music is extremely personal for me, representing important moments of my singing career to date. The pieces range from those that were taught to me by very first singing teacher through to my most explosive and challenging experiences on the operatic stage. L’Heure Exquise feels like a milestone project for me in my life, voice and career. I finally feel at a point that I can present these pieces and do them justice.

Andrew and Arial, do each of you have favourite songs or arrangements?

Andrew: I really love all the songs, so can’t really pick it there. I think Debussy’s Romance (L’âme évaporée et souffrante) and Schubert’s Erlkonig work particularly well as arrangements, and the ironic thing is the Debussy arrangement virtually wrote itself whereas the Schubert was something of a nightmare (how appropriate!).

Ariel: I love Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones populares Españolas for its depth of emotion through an apparent simplicity of means.

Sorry, a horrible question for José. If you had to throw out all but three songs, which three would you keep?

Hahn’s L’Heure Exquise, Erlkönig and Cortigiani vil razza dannata from Verdi’s Rigoletto.

What plans do you have next for the trio?

We will continue our Australian tour for the rest of the year, and we are planning and fundraising to record our recital in December. We still have a handful of arrangements that we hope to develop and add to our program throughout the year.

What do each of you have coming up after this?

José: Apart from my performances with the trio, I will return to Opera Australia as Germont in La Traviata in Melbourne, followed by an Australian tour with superstar soprano Sumi Jo and more recitals of a different program with pianist John Martin.

Andrew: Several things in the pipeline, but in the very near future, March 24 and 25, I’m playing Nigel Westlake’s Antarctica Suite for guitar and orchestra with the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra, and Nigel conducting.

Ariel: I have some upcoming duo performances including a tour of New Zealand later this year. I’m also working towards a new solo guitar recital, which I plan to tour next year.

L’Heure Exquise is at the Independent Theatre, Sydney on March 11 and Manly NSW on March 23. For dates later in the year visit www.josecarbo.com/trio or call 0407 496651