Classical Music Review: The Mastery of Guitarist John Williams

Once he managed to get his recalcitrant instrument in tune, guitarist John Williams played each piece with great mastery. One might not remember the names of the composers or even what each composition sounded like, but no one will forget the sheer beauty of his guitar playing.

By Susan Miron

Guitarist John Williams

Jordan Hall in Boston was packed for guitarist John Williams on Friday night. Clearly, people must love classical guitar, as two excellent performances the past week in this hall were half empty. Presented by The Celebrity Series, this Australian-born guitarist has been renowned for a long time (he will be 70 next month and has been touring as a solo guitarist since the early 1960s), doing what classical guitarists need to do—reinvent not so much themselves as the music they play and record.

With great success, Mr. Williams has collaborated with many leading classical musicians—André Previn, Izhak Perlman, his colleague, guitarist Julian Bream, Cleo Laine, and Daniel Barenboim—as well as a multitude of other more unusual collaborations. I long admired him for his decades-old recording of Bach’s Lute Suites and am glad to report that on this basis of this concert, he is still a superb, thoughtful musician.

The program stated that Mr. Williams would speak about each piece, but I would have been happier with program notes. Tuning was plaguing Mr. Williams all evening, even as he first came on stage. He made the self-disparaging joke I thought was only used by harpists like me buying time: “Guitarists tune 90% of the time and the other 10% playing out of tune.” Too close to home. Mr. Williams assiduously tuned, yet by the next piece, he had to completely retune. No one seemed to mind. No one coughed. No one rustled candy wrappers.

Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Five Preludes,” written in the late 1930s, which have their origins in indigenous Brazilian music, opened the program. “You’d think one prelude would be enough,” Mr. Williams quipped, but each of these five-minute-or-so preludes were stunning, especially the fourth, which featured rip-roaring double and triple harmonics. The only standard works on the program, the “Preludes” showcased many of Mr. Williams’ talents—a lovely sense of rubato, an innate musicality, a complete comfort with performing in front of an audience.

Throughout, I was wondering why this concert was, to me, so much better than the CDs from throughout the decades that I have of Mr. Williams, all of which were well-engineered. Guitar concerts, even when the musician is surrounded by hundreds of others, feel like intimate affairs.

At home or in the car, there are distractions. Guitar, ever so slightly amplified, sounds great in Jordan Hall. Most importantly, guitar music has the power to summon up memories or fantasies of foreign, exotic locales.

The lovely piece “O Bia” by Francis Bebey, a close friend of Mr. Williams, used African music from Cameroon. I felt transported, however, to the Caribbean, with palm trees and sweet rum drinks in the background.

Guitarist John Williams

This was followed by “From a Bird,” three pieces by Mr. Williams himself, a composition based on a birdcall he had heard in Australia. He marveled, “The birdcall was in either 6/8 or 12/8, and in C Major!” The first was exactly as he heard the birdsong, and the next two grew out of it atmospherically. Finally, there was the charming piece “Hello Francis,” dedicated to Francis Bebey (all of these are on his CD From a Bird). The last seven pieces were by Agustín Barrios Mangoré, a Paraguayan poet/composer/guitarist. Idolized in South America (he made only one trip to Europe in the 1930s), Mangoré loved nineteenth-century music, and many of these lovely pieces are inflected with his romantic style.

“El Decamerón Negro” by the Cuban composer Leo Brouwer (Mr. Williams also recorded a CD of his music) and a simple Chaconne by Louis Couperin, an early-eighteenth-century composer, were also on the program. Once he managed to get his recalcitrant instrument in tune, Mr. Williams played everything with great mastery. One might not remember the names of the composers or even what each piece sounded like, but no one will forget the sheer beauty of his guitar playing.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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