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Four Guitars 

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MINNEAPOLIS GUITAR QUARTET

at Unity Temple, April 30

For every minute spent performing onstage, the average musician must spend hundreds of hours working alone. Mother may stand over the youthful musician-in-training to enforce the discipline of daily practice, but she can't press the keys or strings, provide the breath for the embouchure, or memorize words; at some point the instrumentalist or singer has to come up with the willpower to work alone. A teacher may provide instruction and suggestions from the basic to the esoteric, but the student must digest those instructions, go back to the studio, and make them work--alone.

Still, most musicians, whether instrumentalists or singers, need others with whom to perform. A pianist, organist, or guitarist may be able to cut it as a solo act, but most need some backup, usually in the form of a piano. Performing with others entails many additional hours of work: first one must get one's own part down, then blend it in rehearsal with the other performers' parts.

When a pianist is playing in lieu of an orchestra, as in a transcription of a concerto or aria, a flutist or soprano may be able to get away with being somewhat dictatorial; but generally in lieder and other collaborative efforts intended for two voices cooperation is necessary. Performing in an orchestra or chorus is in some ways the most difficult sort of ensemble work--one must bow or breathe with the horde and the conductor's instructions, regardless of one's prejudices in terms of tempi and rendition. Yet it can also be the easiest, since the individual is absolved of the necessity to provide an interpretation.

Soloing is of course the most gratifying work in terms of ego, and it's a rare musician who doesn't cherish the opportunity to seize the spotlight and revel in it. But playing in a small ensemble, playing chamber music, is at once one of the most difficult and one of the most satisfying forms of music making. It has all the responsibilities of solo work without the accompanying glory. Every line is exposed, and if you muff one the audience will know. Because there's usually no leader to dictate how fast a given movement should go, group members have to work things out on their own. Yet it's this very responsibility that makes chamber music so attractive. In a group of three or four or five every voice can be heard, every voice can shine, every concept can be tested. Everyone's ideas are important. In this sort of music making people remember what inspired them to work so hard to master their instruments in the first place. Most musicians play in orchestras for the money; they play chamber music for love. That's fortunate, since it's generally not particularly remunerative work. Only rarely do performance fees adequately cover the hours spent choosing a program and rehearsing it. As O. Nicholas Raths, speaking for the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, remarked of a former colleague, "He couldn't afford to be in this group anymore."

Clearly the guitar offers lots of opportunities for solo glamour. Solo classical guitar is popular, and it's a rich instrument. So given the hassles of ensemble work and the low pay, what would drive four independent fellows to swallow their egos and play as a quartet?

The answer for the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet seems to be that they want the opportunity to play chamber music, to work with like-minded colleagues, and to find the deep satisfaction that comes through providing prime performances. All four--witty spokesman Raths, founder and serious spokesman Alan Johnston, and quiet men David Crittenden and Joseph Hagedorn--also have solo careers and teach (the Minneapolis area must be a hotbed of guitar study to provide all of them with pupils). They have been together since 1986 (Crittenden joined in 1990), and the long association shows in their playing-as-one entrances and cutoffs--they seem to breathe together.

Ensembles of similar instruments are certainly common enough, but they usually include different sizes and ranges--for example, the range from cello to violin in a string quartet. When we hear a small group playing (as opposed to an orchestra or chorus) we want to be able to distinguish the individual voices. The problem with a classical guitar quartet is that all four musicians are playing the same instrument, so there are no real differences in color or tone. You can't tell who's playing which line just by listening, because the musicians all sound alike. Increased numbers can add to the density and intricacy of the sound, but guitars lack the variations in depth that, say, a string quartet offers. So while a guitar quartet can offer an interesting evening's program and some appealing effects, such an ensemble is really only a little more exciting, illuminating, and intriguing than four solo guitarists. Which isn't to say a guitar quartet is merely a musical novelty--these men in particular are too good for that. Nevertheless it is a sideshow in the world of chamber music.

The program opened with a transcription of a sonata by Arcangelo Corelli, brief but beautiful in form and elegantly played. This was followed by a pair of works premiered by the quartet. Leslie Bassett's Narratives is virtuosic--percussive effects here, lots of tremolo there, ringing all the changes that four very talented guitarists can produce--but ultimately it's a rather pointless and unsatisfying work: five predictable movements that seemingly set out to demonstrate all the sounds the ensemble can generate and not much more. The second was the much more interesting Voices From the Garden by David Kechley, five unbroken movements into which everything from new-age sounds to Japanese elements to jazz had been stirred to largely happy effect. (The first section is entitled "Grooves," evoking some rather unfortunate images of the 70s, but the music overcomes them.)

On the second half of the program Federico Moreno Torroba's Estampas gave fans of the Spanish guitar something to cheer with its eight very Iberian vignettes, all elegantly performed. The final scheduled piece of the evening was Argentinean Jorge Morel's quartet arrangement of his guitar concerto Suite del Sur. Its origins as a work for solo guitar with accompaniment were clear, as many of the flashier and more impressive bits were reserved for the first guitar. Here Johnston took the leading line, and took it very well. The encore was a fast, spirited Brazilian dance. The men of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet played exquisitely, providing stirring, soulful accounts of the music they had chosen.

While the spoken commentaries on the works and their composers were interesting, it would have been helpful to have more complete written program notes. (We were told that David Kechley teaches at Williams College in Massachusetts, but who is Leslie Bassett?)

Both the presenter and the location are worth a few words. Frank Lloyd Wright was often guilty of hyperbole and egotism, but in Unity Temple he lived up to his claims and constructed a masterpiece. What he called his "beautiful room" deserves its name, aesthetically and acoustically; it manages to stack an impressive number of people on four levels while retaining a truly intimate atmosphere. The acoustics are sublime--not a pianissimo was lost. This was the final concert of the season for the Unity Temple Concert Series, which presents five varied programs per year. With its free refreshments at the intermis- sion and meet-the-artists receptions, UTCS manages to create a friendly ambience akin to that of a college-town concert.

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