Great Barrington — Everyone present at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts center on Saturday, May 6, must be wondering if there’s any style of music the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ) can’t tackle. Apparently not: The group’s program on Saturday evening — the penultimate concert of this season’s Close Encounters With Music (CEWM) series — ranged from the sublime (Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6) to the silly (“Pachelbel’s Loose Canon”) in a celebratory showcase of musical styles representing every continent on earth (with the possible exception of Antarctica).
Anyone can dabble in unfamiliar styles and produce something resembling music. But LAGQ performances in all genres are rare virtuosic displays. They’re rare because only a scant number of top classical music virtuosos can hop genres as effortlessly and convincingly as these players do, and even fewer know how to play improvised jazz at any level. All four LAGQ musicians, John Dearman, Matthew Greif, William Kanengiser, and Scott Tennant, perform these feats in every performance.
The program’s opening section featured “Music from the Time of Cervantes” as exemplified by the works of four Spanish composers, most of whom Miguel de Cervantes could have been aware during his lifetime. These pieces were arranged for guitar quartet by Professor William Kanengiser (one of LAGQ’s founders). To introduce each selection, Kanengiser acted out the roles of Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, portraying the characters as they appeared in the theatrical production “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote” (2009). The Mahaiwe crowd received Kanengiser’s dramatizations enthusiastically, partly because he executed them so well, but also because performances of this sort are uncommon at chamber music concerts in the rather staid world of classical music. In fact, Kanengiser’s vivid depictions of Cervantes’ characters engender serious hope that other classical music ensembles will find the imagination, vision, and courage to do what the LAGQ does in every concert. (This is no vain hope: Remember Michael Tilson Thomas’s Tanglewood presentation of “The Thomashefskys” a few years ago?)
Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 came next, followed by Brazilian pieces from Hermeto Pascoal, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Baden Powell. After Intermission came Phillip Houghton’s “Opals.” Most of the music on LAGQ’s program was originally written for other instruments and transcribed, years or centuries later, for guitar quartet. But not Houghton’s. Written expressly for four classical guitars, this nine-minute composition takes listeners on a succession of vertigo-inducing harmonic escapades while striking a pleasing balance between tonal ambiguity and more conventional harmony. In other words, “Opals” is reasonably accessible on the first listen. Houghton, a classical guitarist with little formal training in composition, draws quite naturally from his own familiarity with the instrument. Maybe that — as well as his renowned synesthesia — is what makes it so difficult to detect much of a conservatory influence in his music. Phillip Houghton knows what he wants to hear and how to achieve it in his own compositions.
Next on the program was an excellent transcription of “La soirée dans Grenade,” by Claude Debussy (arranged by J. Smith). As with several of the program’s earlier numbers (i.e., the Brandenburg), the “La soirée” arrangement is so well tailored to a classical guitar quartet that it’s hard to believe Debussy wrote it for piano.
And, finally, it was time for the show’s headliner, the music everyone at the Mahaiwe had been waiting for all evening, music of unmistakable Spanish origin: Bizet’s Carmen. That Carmen’s composer was actually French is of little consequence at such a moment. Audiences (other than the French) have long thought of this popular opera as authentic Spanish music, and so it takes its place alongside Maurice Ravel’s manufactured “Spanish” styles (not to mention his occasional dalliances with ersatz gypsy music).
Practically everyone recognizes the big themes from Carmen. (Many toddlers can hum this stuff.) And when they’re performed on a gut-string guitar, they tend to sound like they were written, in Spain, for that very instrument. When listening to Bizet’s opera, it’s okay to forget, for just a few moments, that the composer was a Frenchman.
Of course, there was an encore. It amounted, seemingly, to a whirlwind tour of every kind of music the band has ever enjoyed playing. For a few tantalizing moments, the ensemble sounded like a supercharged Earl Scruggs band as they tore through a brief number that had the room’s bluegrass fans transfixed in amazement. When Scott Tennant plays hot banjo licks on a gut-string guitar — without finger picks — the effect is astonishing. Only the group’s established fans could possibly have expected such a thing. This part of the show flew by a little too quickly for some folks in the crowd.
Members of the LAGQ certainly know how to put a concert program together. They’re as good at this as they are at playing their instruments. They’ve had about 37 years to get it right, and they’ve gotten it down to a fine science. No one will be surprised to learn that all of LAGQ’s members are professional educators: Professor William Kanengiser teaches at USC’s Thornton School of Music, as does Scott Tennant. John Dearman teaches at California State University, Northridge and Matthew Greif at Cal State University, Dominguez Hills.
If it’s true that variety is the very spice of life, it follows that the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet is a habañero chili pepper.