Dallas — Is there something about the guitar, as an instrument, that puts a performer especially at ease with an audience? Guitar recitals tend to feature performers who speak directly, almost conversationally, with an audience more than do other types of chamber music concerts. This welcome tendency personalizes the program, provides an intimate atmosphere, and takes any awkwardness out of that intimacy. It may help the performer, and it certainly doesn’t hurt the audience.
Irina Kulikova’s Oct. 2 performance at University Park United Methodist Church, the first offering of Fort Worth Guitar Society’s and Allegro Guitar Society of Dallas’s 2015-2016 season, was a concert in this tradition. In the course of her somewhat unusual program—an all-Spanish first half, an all-Russian second half—she related details of her youth in Russia, of her current domestic life, of the Russian composers featured on the program, and of the works themselves. Everything she said was relevant, and her remarks made the concert a richer experience for everyone thereby. She observed other guitar-recital traditions, as well, such as tuning her instrument at every possible juncture, but that’s not a complaint. It’s when a guitarist doesn’t keep the instrument in tune that the complaints start.
Before Kulikova came onstage, when President and Artistic Director Christopher McGuire welcomed the audience to the opening of the organizations’ seasons (the same program was given the day before at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth), he apologized for a non-functional microphone. It was indeed difficult to understand him, and some may have feared for the ensuing concert. Apparently, however, it’s just not a speaker’s hall; it certainly is a guitar’s hall.
Kulikova excels in differentiating the lines of what she is playing. You get that from her recordings, and it turns out that it isn’t due to clever microphone setup or post-production. In a complex texture—for example, in her program’s two 18th-century works, the Sor Fantasia, Op. 30, and the Murcia Toccata en el estilo de Corelli—melodic lines could pass from one string to another, and could even cross each other, yet retain consistent tone-color. She never had to rely on the audience’s good will, so to speak, to bridge any gaps in technique, the way many young performers do. With the assistance of a hall that is very kind to guitars, she was in complete command the entire time. Evidence of this came during the Murcia in the form of a mistake--or maybe we should call it a possible mistake. It was difficult to tell because it was carried off like it was part of the piece.
Excellently performed, her program never strayed far from a safe harmonic and rhythmic language. The jazz-influenced last work on the first half, José María Gallardo del Rey’s California Suite, was not noticeably jazzier than the first work, Agustín Barrios Mangoré’s Vals No. 4. And the evening’s second half seemed bound to the range defined by its first work, the Three Lyric Pieces of Konstantin Vassiliev. The work’s three movements are in memoriam Rachmaninoff, Barrios, and Villa-Lobos, respectively. And while each movement represents a skillful assimilation of its commemoratee’s musical vocabulary, there’s just not much in terms of musical style that separates any two of them. Nor, for that matter, is there much that separates the musical language of the closing two works’ composers, Sergei Rudnev and Victor Koslov. Some might say “stylistically consistent”; others “monochromatic.”
That may sound like a complaint, but it’s not a weighty one. After three quarters of the program had passed, however, nothing really stood out—and that sounds like a complaint waiting to happen. But Kulikova’s next-to-last work, Rudnev’s Old Lime Tree, gave the audience one absolutely exquisite moment. She was called upon simultaneously to damp the strings and to strum vigorously—she was rubbing the strings, her right hand describing circles over the body of the instrument. It was like a gorgeous, hypnotic stage whisper.
One absolutely exquisite moment in a sea of monochromatic excellence is not bad for an evening.