Fort Worth — If you had the misfortune to miss Thursday’s recital by Bosnian guitarist Denis Azabagic, I suggest you make every effort to hear him play the next time he’s in town. Azabagic’s stage presence is charming and charismatic, and that charisma comes through in his playing, and combines with technical prowess, musicality, and programming diversity to create one of the best classical guitar performances I’ve ever heard.
His program Thursday evening in the new Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum featured several contemporary composers, including two from Azabagic’s own former Yugoslavia, as well as Azabagic’s own arrangement of J. S. Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin in G Minor (BWV 1001). Using moveable acoustical panels significantly warmed up the sound compared to anything I’ve previously heard in that hall, and made it a bit more forgiving, not that Azabagic needed the help.
The first piece on the program, Alan Thomas’s Out of Africa, inspired, according to Azabagic’s onstage remarks, by Karen Blixen’s novel and the subsequent film, was utterly transfixing. The five-movement work required both technical facility and musicality, which Azabagic offered in abundance. His technique surpasses the traditional, and includes bold novelty techniques. The piece showcased the full range of the guitar’s, and by extension Azabagic’s, abilities, alternating between moments of fast-paced virtuosity and lyric beauty. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a guitarist with a more sumptuous tone in the lyrical passages.
On the first half of the program, Azabagic also performed Vicente Asencio’s Suite Valenciana. Before performing this piece, Azabagic announced from the stage that although he’s recorded this piece, Thursday’s concert was the first time he’d played it live. He quipped that it was therefore “My debut—I don’t know how it’s going to go. On the CD, it’s really good.” This three-movement piece was actually the only piece on the program with the Spanish inflections we’ve come to expect from classical guitar playing, and Azabagic excels in this mode.
Championing the music of his current and former countrymen, Azabagic performed Serbian Dusan Bogdanovic’s Blues and Seven Variations and Bosnian Vojislav Ivanovic’s Café Pieces. It was an extraordinary experience to hear the blues, that quintessentially American form, composed by a Serbian and performed on classical guitar by a Bosnian. But Azabagic made it work. Ivanovic’s music, both Café Pieces and Azabagic’s encore Nostalgia, was not as entrancing as most of the rest of the program, but Azabagic’s advocacy of the music of his homeland allows his audience to hear music they likely would not otherwise.
Arranging one of J.S. Bach’s solo violin sonatas for classical guitar is a bold move indeed. The first three movements, Adagio, Fuga, and Siciliana, adapted well to guitar. This is not completely surprising, since the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin include copious triple stops and even four-note chords that a skilled guitarist can readily reproduce. And one of the best aspects of hearing an oh-so-familiar piece performed on another instrument is that listeners can hear it with new ears, as it were. Only the final Presto movement fared less well than the others, largely because each phrase should be shaped with the slightest rubato at the lowest point of the phrase, and Azabagic breezed past those opportunities to pause and make real music happen, going for technical fireworks instead. In his defense, though, a startling, gunshot-like “boom” emanated from the sound system in the middle of the Presto; it was startling to everyone in the audience, and must have been more so to someone such as Azabagic, who grew up in a war-torn country. Astonishingly, though, he literally never missed a beat—he merely looked up briefly and continued playing Bach.
Other than the sound system issue, only one other blight marred an evening otherwise memorable for all the right reasons. The group of women behind me committed the trifecta of classical-music audience sins in the first half: one was coughing consumptively, two others held a discussion about whether their friend was feeling well enough to continue with the concert, and one of them had her cell phone ring. Somehow, magically, they managed to time this racket for the quietest, most beautiful moments of the recital. It was a profoundly frustrating distraction from an enchanting recital.