Guitar gods and circus scores: an afternoon at the symphony

Stravinsky, Piston, and the L.A. Guitar Quartet keep things light and lively at the Schnitz

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

While Eric Clapton’s pantheon of guitar gods was shredding Madison Square Garden over the weekend (old pals like Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Vince Gill, and Los Lobos dropped by to peel a little paint) a very different but no less rewarding form of guitar worship was going on in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall: the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, backed by the Oregon Symphony, was getting down and cleanly with a little Joaquin Rodrigo.

In certain quarters the members of the quartet – John Dearman, Matthew Greif, William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant – are guitar gods themselves, though more Apollonian than Dionysian. Not that they can’t get deep inside the emotions of a piece of music. They can, and do. But they come from a different tradition of acoustic and composed music that embraces the present but also circles back to the guitar’s medieval and renaissance predecessors. And while the trademark of Clapton and friends might be to take things higher, faster, and louder, the LAGQ’s virtuosity is rooted in restraint.

The guitar quartet was the guest-star part of a program that conductor and music director Carlos Kalmar called circus music – “except for the Concierto Andaluz, but it’s played by four guitarists, which is kind of a circus by itself.” And so it was – the concert, that is: Igor Stravinsky’s quick and galumphing “Circus Polka” (1942) and the 1947 version of his ballet score “Petrouchka” (originally composed 1910-11) in the first half; Walter Piston’s sly and bouncy 1940 suite from the ballet “The Incredible Flutist” following the guitarists after intermission. It was an all 20th century program, if mostly early 20th century (Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto Andaluz” premiered in 1967, and the guitar quartet’s encore, Manuel de Falla’s bumblebee-quick and ever-popular “Ritual Fire Dance,” in 1915), and there was a time when it might have been considered a first-rate pops program: it made me think of Arthur Fiedler and his emphasis on “light classics” with the old Boston Pops. No matter. On an alternatingly sunny and blustery Sunday afternoon that felt both light and breezy, so did this entertaining and deceptively challenging concert.

The best musical quartets are made up of players who are virtuosic individually but even better as an ensemble, and the LAGQ fills that bill, playing with the speed and synchronicity of a great passing basketball team: sometimes it’s tough to tell who scored the basket and who got the assist. “Concierto Andaluz” moves in ebbs and flows, quick in its fingering (it has complex meters and more than a nod to the primal rhythms of flamenco) but leisurely in its structure; and the quartet, playing a deft little passing game with the scaled-down orchestra, shows off without showing off. It was tough not to smile at this display of easy-sounding but technically difficult dexterity.

“I think ‘Petrouchka’ is my favorite Stravinsky ballet score,” my classical/opera/ballet buff younger son remarked as we settled into our seats. Not “Firebird” or “Rite of Spring”? No, he replied: “Petrouchka” seems more contemporary. Then, in his casual opening chat that is one of the advantages of attending the symphony’s Sunday afternoon concerts, Kalmar noted that “Petrouchka” is also the least popular of the three. Why? Well, the other two wind up mightily and close with a satisfying bang. “Petrouchka,” which tells the odd little tale of a lovesick puppet who is murdered by his loutish rival for the ballerina’s affections, ends not in a whimper but a quiet, caustic jeer: Petrouchka’s ghost appears on a roof above the public square, thumbing his nose at the crowd. It’s a sly, sophisticated ending, precise in its demands, and the orchestra pulled it off deftly. Stravinsky’s score is also very brassy, both in the lower and upper registers (that’s principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work expressing himself so forthrightly) and extraordinarily complex rhythmically, giving the percussionists a healthy workout. In that sense it’s definitely modernist, and it reminded me that later in his career, after he’d left Russia and Europe and moved to the United States, Stravinsky sometimes wrote scores specifically for jazz musicians.

“It seems like only the best conductors record Piston’s ‘Incredible Flutist’ suite,” the younger son said, implying that it takes a brilliant musical mind to realize that this light and impish romp of a ballet score is also a very good piece of music. Kalmar and the orchestra alike seemed convinced. They ripped engagingly and precisely through the passages of this (also) odd little tale, this one about a wandering flutist ­– principal flutist Jessica Sindell is sterling – who charms the pants off the people in a sleepy village. Again, the piece is breezy and blatty and percussive, and you could tell the players were having at least as much fun as the audience. I saw heads a-bobbin’ in the cello section, and when the orchestra got to the Circus March section where the players are called on to burst out in cheers and whistles, there was no holdin’ ’em back. Make a joyful noise, all ye lands.

At intermission the son rushed out to the lobby, took a twenty-dollar bill out of his wallet (all the cash he had) and bought a copy of an L.A. Guitar Quartet CD. “Bring it back after the show,” Michael Parsons, who was manning the sales table, told him. “They’ll be here to sign copies.” So we did, and struggled to get the damnable plastic wrapper off so it could be signed: as it happened, we’d both recently clipped our fingernails short. Eventually we managed. The woman in front of us had the same problem. “I want to get this signed,” she told the quartet’s Greif, who was sitting in the first of the assembly-line chairs, “but I just can’t seem to get this wrapping off!” He took the CD from her, displaying those impressive long and tapered fingernails that guitarists maintain for precise picking. “I can do that.” And … zip.

No doubt Clapton and Richards could do the same. But I ask you: would they stick around after a concert to autograph fans’ CDs?


  • The program repeats at 8 p.m. Monday, April 15. Ticket information 503-228-1353.
  • James McQuillen’s concert review for The Oregonian is here.


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