Opinion: Guitarists’ Gentle Debut

Manhattan Guitar Quartet

    Music for Montauk presented an unusual ensemble on Saturday at the Montauk School: the Manhattan Guitar Quartet. The group was formed just last October, and this was its debut performance.
    The players are four master’s degree candidates at the Manhattan School of Music: Jordan Dodson, Vilian Ivant­chev, Steven Cowan, and Clifton Brown. In addition to the credentials of each individual player, the quartet has already won the notable Lillian Fuchs Chamber Music Competition.
    Each of the four guitars has the same range (unlike a string quartet, in which, say, the violins are higher and the cello is the bass), although two of them used a capo, a type of clamp fastened across the strings to raise their pitch. As with a string quartet, each player mostly stayed with one voice part (lead or bass, for example) through the concert. Since it is a combination of instruments rarely heard, most of its music is arranged for it or written in the 20th century.
    Ferdinando Carulli was an Italian composer and guitarist of the classical era, and we heard a transcription for quartet of a concerto that he originally wrote for solo guitar and keyboard. The players showed themselves to be a clear and precise ensemble, complemented by a nice vibrato in the lead and fine trills and ornaments.
    “The Cat That Walked by Himself,” written in 1988 by David Leisner, who is on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, is based on the short story of the same name by Rudyard Kipling. Of the 11 short movements, I especially liked the charming third one, which was a duet on “the first singing magic,” the ninth (the cat and the mouse), with a special effect of the palm rubbing over the guitar strings, and the 10th, which was a strutting, almost brassy dog-and-cat chase.
    “Cuban Landscapes With Rain” by Leo Brouwer was described as “a cult classic in the guitar ensemble repertoire.” It has some sections of chance music, left somewhat up to the performers at the moment, and, as you might guess, some raindrop-like effects.
    The latter, by the way, proved to be especially appropriate on a rainy evening that unfortunately brought less of an audience than usual for the series.
    Music by two Brazilian composers, Celso Machado and Paulo Bellinati, combined influences of pop, jazz, and classical, and brought some exciting moments of dance and party music flair to the evening, perhaps more typical of what many would associate with the guitar.
    Many times through the concert, I found the timbre to be captivating, though sometimes the overall effect was understated. The acoustics of the school gym and auditorium are good, and for the most part the sound carried well. Some of the quietest notes called for the attention of even the most discerning ears. Although I was glad that the instruments and music could be heard acoustically (without amplification) as they should be, I thought that perhaps an ideal situation for this type of chamber music would be seating the audience in a semicircle, with the players in the center raised up just a foot or two, rather than up on a stage.
    Many thanks to Ruth Widder, founder and chairwoman of Music for Montauk, for “pushing the envelope,” as she called it, in bringing a concert that was out of the ordinary in both the instrumentation and repertoire. The Manhattan Guitar Quartet is off to a good start; they are worth watching.
    On May 14 the series will continue with “La Tragedie de Carmen,” a staged performance of the Bizet opera in one and a half hours. On Oct. 22 Music for Montauk, which presents its programs without charge, will mark its 20th anniversary with a performance by the same group that opened the series in 1991, the American String Quartet.