Dallas — One of the musical gems in the Metroplex is the Allegro Guitar Society. Under the artistic direction of Christopher McGuire, AGS consistently bring the top-level of guitarists for their series of concerts: one in Fort Worth and one in Dallas. On April 8, at a crowded University Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, he presented one of the best of the best: Jason Vieaux. (The Fort Worth performance was the night before at a sold-out Renzo Piano Pavilion Auditorium at the Kimbell Art Museum.)
Vieaux was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1973 and attended the Cleveland Institute of Music. In 1992, he won the top prize in the Guitar Foundation of America International Guitar Competition, which is the big prize in guitar land. He is the youngest person to ever win it. In 1995, he was appointed Artistic Ambassador of the U.S. to Southeast Asia and holds a Cleveland Institute of Music Alumni Achievement Award. His recent solo album Play, on Azica Records, won the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo.
But the recital stages are filled with soloists with a long list of prizes and other honors and recording engineers can touch up performances to Grammy levels. With this in mind, there was quite a bit of anticipation as the unassuming shaggy-headed and sturdily build 42-year-old sat down to play. The bottom line is that on a scale of 1 to 10, Vieaux is an 11.
He played a program of mostly original music for the guitar with not as many adaptations of pieces for other instruments. Usually, it is the other way around. The program itself was astonishing. The list of composers ranged from Bach to Henze, with some Albéniz and Ellington tossed in. Some pieces were standards of the repertoire and frequently recorded by guitarists, setting up some real expectations.
He impressed immediately. A Grand Overture, Op. 61, by Mauro Giuliani, set the mood and showed off the huge sound he gets out of his instrument. But it was the second selection, J. S. Bach’s Lute Suite No. 1 in E Minor, that dazzled.
As is typical for Bach, this is a work of chromatic complexity requiring clarity of many concurrently running musical lines. Vieaux’s performance was exemplary. Because of his careful attention to dynamics and impeccable technique, all of Bach’s intricate lines were not only clear, but also constantly interacting.
And so it went.
The program made wide stylistic leaps. Some selections by Isaac Albéniz are standard fare for guitarists. Vieaux included three pieces from España, one he arranged himself. The second half opened with Jongo, by the Brazilian guitarist Paulo Bellinati. (Jongo is both a title and an Afro-Brazilian style of music, which the piece imitates.)
From there, Vieaux jumped to the esoteric side of the musical fence with Drei Tentos, from Kammermusik by Hans Werner Henze. Kammermusik is a rarely performed twelve-movement cycle of songs for tenor and a collection of instruments, which only appear together in three of them.
Kammermusik dates from a period of great change in Henze’s composition style as he moved away from strict serial composition and began to incorporate other diverse elements such as jazz, Italian street music, rock and some exotic Arabian sounds. The extreme difficulty of the cycle probably explains the paucity of performances. The three equally challenging selections on this program are interludes for solo guitar in the cycle.
The three selections range from abstract single lines to an explosive finale of great complexity. While not serial, neither are these pieces tonal. Instead, they occupy a middle ground and Vieaux’s sympathetic performance melded the diverse musical styles into a most satisfying whole.
Some of Vieaux’s own arrangements of less strenuous music followed, such the dreamy Always and Forever by Pat Metheny, the Brazilian-flavored A Felicidade by Antoñio Carlos Jobin, best known for “The Girl from Ipanema.” Then he played “In a Sentimental Mood” by “Duke” Ellington and ended with “Misionera” by the Argentinian composer/guitarist/pianist Fernando Bustamante.
Throughout the extensive program, he rarely moved his body but you could see the music resonate in his facial expressions—that is, if you were close enough to catch them.
Vieaux made it all look easy.
He made us feel like we could play these selections with a little practice, when nothing could be further from the truth. These are some the most challenging works in the repertoire. Yet all we heard was some terrific music, without marveling at how he did it. Vieaux’s “trick,” so to speak, was to make his technical prowess vanish and let the music stand by itself. Unproduced, as it were.
It was a remarkable performance and there was little wonder that the CDs he brought along to sign and sell vanished quickly.