Dallas — Friday’s performance by the UK-based Vida Guitar Quartet was a lively evening of varied arrangements for four guitars, some familiar, some much less so. Presented Thursday in Fort Worth by the Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society and in Dallas by the Allegro Guitar Society of Dallas, the quartet—its players are Mark Ashford, Mark Eden, Christopher Stell and Helen Sanderson—has a fun, quirky vibe that clearly amused and engaged the audience. Remarks between pieces from three of the quartet’s members were charming and delightful (and delivered in the most delicious of English accents).
The repertoire for this recital was predominantly 20th and 21st-century, a bold programming move that made for an interesting night.
The best-known of the pieces was probably George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Arranged by Christopher Stell, this version is accurate to the original (two piano) version, but the Vida Quartet played it pretty straight. There is precedent for this, of course—the piece will accommodate it—but a bit more swing would have been welcome, and the big dynamic contrasts listeners are accustomed to in piano and orchestra performances simply aren’t going to happen with four classical guitars. Still, this was the audience favorite of the evening, inspiring a standing ovation.
Even more interesting, though, was Mark Eden’s arrangement of Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony. The variety of tone colors the four guitarists produced out of their instruments was impressive, although given that they are all in the same range of pitches, a string symphony inevitably loses its higher and lower ranges. The cleverest bit had the four players using sponge “mutes” to achieve quite authentic bowed-string pizzicato sounds for the second movement, the “Playful Pizzicato.” This arrangement showed off both the ensemble’s technical abilities and their sensitivity as musicians. They were continuously attentive to each others’ playing, which enabled some truly impressive feats of ensemble as, for instance, the melody was passed from one player to another in the middle of a phrase.
The least familiar pieces on the program were probably arrangements of contemporary composer Adam Gorb’s Yiddish Dances, a fun take on traditional Jewish dance forms such as the Hora; and British composer Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances: Set 2. The latter is a highly melodic, folk-song-influenced piece, with members of the quartet frequently taking the part of the percussion section on the bodies of their guitars, to fun effect.
Last on the printed program was a suite from Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Like the Gershwin, this is a ubiquitous piece. One of the things that unusual arrangements do for too-familiar pieces is that they may, at least ideally, allow experienced listeners to hear music with what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” While at first we may think, “Oh, that’s the flute solo” or “Ah, that sounds different on guitar than on violin,” eventually we may find ourselves able to let go of that and, ideally, hear Carmen as a person might who had never heard it before.