String quartet strikes chords with Romero, Pujol, Grigoryan and co.

Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

July 19, 2014

A gala is always a potential smorgasbord of Festival fare and last night’s offering was no exception. On this occasion the special guest was the Australian String Quartet and it provided the opportunity to show off three completely different ways of taking the guitar into new musical territory.

First up though was a rather different way of extending the rep – a massed guitar orchestra of 26 no less, bringing back memories of those popular balalaika ensembles of Soviet days. The Brisbane-based Aurora Guitar Ensemble are past and present pupils of their irrepressibly enthusiastic conductor Paul Svoboda and their pleasure in making music is palpable.

They played a range of easy-on-the-ear compositions, all by their bottom-wiggling music director himself. The likes of Alegria (a Cirque de Soleil-ish pastiche with retro 60s syncopations and an added Moroccan episode) and Celtic Crash (a hint of Riverdance plus body percussion by Svoboda) were typical offerings. Best though was Echoes of Rain Shadows with its imitations of violin pizzicato on the guitars. Tomorrow night will see the Auroras augmented to 80, thanks to the addition of over 50 South Australian hopefuls. It should be a sight to see.

The second half featured the ASQ – still the best dressed quartet on the circuit – and three guitarists: Pepe Romero, Máximo Pujol and festival director Slava Grigoryan. The latter went first, playing a gorgeous work by Australian composer Shaun Rigney tongue-twistingly entitled The Garden of Forking Paths. Based on a short story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, the work falls into roughly three sections seemingly depicting nature in all its South American splendour. Its technically demanding fragmentary nature and its need for precision suited the ASQ players down to the ground. Called upon to make violins sound like birds and a cello croak like a bullfrog, and cemented together by Grigoryan’s delicate guitar playing, the work rose and fell in lyrical arcs. The central section with its evocation of a tropical summer haze was magical with a lovely guitar meditation at its heart.

It would be a mistake to think that Boccherini would be a walk in the park after the rigours of Rigney. The remarkable Pepe Romero, now a sprightly 70-year-old, who joined the quartet for the famous “Fandango” guitar quintet, demonstrated just how imaginative and technically sophisticated this underrated composer can be. The ASQ have form in Boccherini – I recall a fine realisation of one of his minor key quartets earlier this year – and they demonstrated once again how much more there is to his music if you go looking for it. Their lean, vibrato-lite approach was especially effective in allowing the guitar to shine through the string textures. The first movement with its delicate textures captured the sultry heat of a Spanish afternoon, Romero matching the quartet for elegance and subtlety of dynamics and shading. The perky second movement march with its rapid runs and that typically Boccherinian high cello had just the right degree of bravado. The fiesta-like outbursts were great fun. The fandango finale with its sudden outbursts and perfectly shaped cescendi and decrescendi was spot on. The violins let fly against the percussive panache of the guitar and there was some nifty castanet work from cellist Sharon Draper.

The grand finale saw the ASQ joined by the Máximo Pujol trio for the Argentinian composer’s Luminosa de Buenos Aires, a four movement suite packed with memorable tunes and crafted to allow each player, or various combinations of instruments, their moment in the spotlight. From the walking bass intro onwards the work is possessed of a terrific energy and that authentic Argentinian atmosphere that Pujol conjures so effortlessly.

The second movement was charming with its wistful café melodies and the heart-breaking sound of the bandoneón (a superb Eleonora Ferreyra) punctuated by the 1,2,3 1,2,3 1,2 of the strings. Pujol’s guitar solo in the third movement, like the persistent pattering of rain on a roof somewhere in the tropics, was magical. The stamping dance that opened the fourth movement led into another of those melancholy episodes that pervade so many of Pujol’s compositions and culminated in a poignant extended duet for guitar and bandoneón.

As a taster for the Festival, the gala second half was pretty near ideal. And how great to see five classy Australian musicians getting to strut their stuff alongside guitar legends like Romero and Pujol.

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