Washington 2016

THE JOHN E. MARLOW GUITAR SERIES

He had me at, “my wife and I have walked the Camino many times.” This is how David Russell, classical guitarist who plays in the stratosphere high above the ordinary crowd, began his introduction to the second work on Saturday’s program, Cantigas de Santiago by Stephen Goss. He also had me before that in his opening Suite Compostelana by Federico Mompou, equally inspired by the famous pilgrimage. David admittedly hasn’t made the 500 mile trek all at once but he lives within a 200 mile shot of the city and has done it enough to have logged in some impressive mileage. His own experience as a pilgrim set the tone for the Cantigas drawn from the earliest of Iberian secular songs and twelfth and thirteenth century collections. In the Goss work, one at times skips along the route and, at others, sits down to give the sandals a rest and reflect on the road behind and ahead. There was even a hint of Moorish influence in one of the movements which added to the complex dimensions of these historically set pieces. Sitting comfortably in the 21st century with lightweight backpacks and gear, it’s hard to imagine how the journey, all those centuries ago, would have been for whole families making their way to the relics of St. James, but this music makes it sound like a breeze, so if you’re planning the adventure, download the Cantigas — they’re sure to please and take the edge off those aching limbs. The Suite Compostelana, Mompou’s only work for the guitar, gave us some impressive, utterly exquisite and impeccably executed passages which left the audience a bit hushed after its hearing. It was the kind of interpretation that lends itself to accolades of “otherworldliness” and “if he’d lived in ancient Rome he’d be a god.” But Spain has already named at least one street after David Russell so it’s easy to understand the esteem in which he’s held there.

Part two of the evening began with the Bach Partita No. 1, BWV 825, transcribed by Gerhard Reichenbach. What a master this great composer is in the hands of another master. Even in the hands of less adept musicians Bach convinces that he’s the king of counterpoint. As I sat dumbstruck by this music, I was keeping time with David as he moved through the seven dances of the Partita. He never missed a beat. He plays with such precision that the airlines could learn a thing or two from his well-defined tempi even in the midst of complex trills here, there, and everywhere. And, as a keyboardist, I can say confidently the guitar demands much more skill to pluck the strings with one hand and place the notes on a narrow neck with the other than it does to depress a key attached to a rod with a hammer. And, it takes more than just a “gifted” musician to finesse a trill out of a wooden box and just six strings to produce an intelligible sound. It may be even more difficult than putting a man on Mars, but I’ll leave that to NASA to evaluate.

By the time we got to Tarrega’s Gran Jota and the first encore, Granados’ Andaluza, the listeners didn’t even bother sitting down. They just stood through it all – well, I do exaggerate a bit, but just a very little bit. You have to give it to the Marlow Series, one is never disappointed. With musicians like David Russell invited to town, we’re extremely fortunate to be the receptacle of a Series so well-conceived; and, it didn’t happen overnight folks. This is the 22nd Season, and with a lot of luck we’ll hear 22 more (hopefully with a lot of David Russell too).

-Deborah Drayer