by Jayant Sankrityayana
The Pune Guitar Society(PGS) organised a combined guitar and piano solo recital on 3 September 2016 at the Mazda Hall in Pune. This, a premier venue for classical music recitals in India, was made available through the kind support of the Poona Music Society.
Since its inception, the PGS has considered the facilitation of bidirectional exposure between the guitar and other instruments as one of its core aims. Pune boasts a strong culture in piano music and a long lineage of teachers who have kept this tradition alive and vibrant. Tanaz Irani is one of these, with a reputation for excellence and a corpus of dedicated and capable students who have gone on to contribute to the study of the instrument, in turn. Tanaz responded graciously to the somewhat tentative request made by the PGS – would she like to recommend some of her students for a joint recital with guitarists?
I was aware that Kuldeep had been busy behind the scenes setting up the event, even while I was unable to find the time to be seriously involved. So it was almost as an unprepared audience member that I arrived at the Mazda Hall that Saturday.
I deliberately shut my ears away from the rehearsals that were already in progress, with the pianists trying out their repertoire for the evening on the Blüthner grand (magnificent instrument, that), the guitarists awaiting their turn, desultory conversations between bystanders, and the brooding weather. I had every intention of preserving my hearing for the actual performance.
The guitarists played first. We knew that the dynamic ranges of guitars and pianos are practically in alternative universes, and that it would be advisable for the pianists to play afterwards. I sat back and allowed the sonic texture to settle over me. Rather than going through a piece-by-piece “concert review” in the usual sense, I would only like to comment on the highlights that each performer brought to the stage.
Jake Samuel, a core member of the PGS, opened the recital with a Leo Brouwer Study. It is always sobering to consider the oeuvre of the preeminent living guitar composer – he shows up at every level, everywhere, from neophyte student repertoire to some real masterworks for various ensembles. Jake approaches all his music with that matter-of-fact intellect which I know him to have as a person. The Study was demonstrably well-understood and expressed – and I would like to say that, in Brouwer, Jake has found his own path for expression and growth as a guitarist.
I have heard Eesha Randad, young at fourteen, play at a few meetings of the PGS. This was the first time she was onstage at the Mazda. What always strikes Kuldeep and I is her complete lack of stage fright, and the absolute confidence with which she sets about her musical tasks at hand. Her rendition of Astor Piazzola’s Milonga del Angel demonstrated how far she has come in a short time, without any access to high-quality instruction, without even an instrument that can square up with her level of playing.
Kabir Dabholkar was the last guitarist to play. He has excellent tone, an understanding across genres of music, and palpable sonic presence. Again, Leo Brouwer was in evidence, in the last movement from El Decameron Negro. Kabir enjoys playing this, and it shows.
After a short intermission, it was the turn of the pianists.
Rahel Shetkhatkar commenced with Claude Debussy’s Prelude from Suite Bergamasque. I’ve always found some resonance with a statement made by Dan Morgan, author of two interesting guitar methods, that “compared with pianists, us guitarists are very much do-it-yourself musicians”. Well, us guitarists can’t really help it. Our repertoire never featured composers who could match their contemporaries on other instruments (well, not until recently, anyway). Rahel’s interpretation was shaded beautifully.
Azriela Maben proceed to delightfully express another Debussy – the Minuet from Suite Begamasque. My jazz persona identifies quite happily with Debussy, and I could hear echoes of Ahmad Jamal’s Poinciana as well as John Abercrombie’s Ralph’s Piano Waltz in this work. Who knows if there are actually inspirational connections? Azriela is an unassuming, quiet young person who is totally transformed, united inexorably with her piano, when playing.
Amar Mane and Sachit Ajmani proceeded to play Frederic Chopin’s Grande Waltz Brillante and Ballade in A Flat Major, respectively. Both pianists had completely different expressive approaches, but similar degrees of passion. Amar demonstrated a controlled, almost rational treatment that capably celebrated the structure of the music, while Sachit was more introspective, almost pensive, in his interpretation.
Finally, Tuhin Rao, a teacher in his own right, closed the recital with Franz Schubert’s Impromptu in B Flat Major. This set of variations, based on a theme from Schubert’s own operetta Rosamunde, is sonically quite predictable, but comes up with interesting changes in tone colour. We can see Beethoven’s influence in Schubert’s compositional style. Tuhin was entirely at home with it, and I found myself wanting to listen to this accomplished pianist in a setting with more modern repertoire.
In his closing remarks, Arnaud Devic, President of the PMS, emphasized the need for students to perform formally as much as possible, and commended the PGS on the cross-instrument initiative that had been taken.
Subsequent to the recital, Jake, Kuldeep, Tuhin and I made our way to the Poona Coffee House along with Meghana Dharap, a pianist student of Tanaz’s, and Aditya, her brother and a guitar player.
Sitting back and listening to the conversation that ensued, I was caught by the realization that this little recital, organised almost experimentally by the PGS, could potentially instigate a new cycle of freshness in the Western classical music ambiance in Pune. It was a sheer delight to know how Leo Brouwer had touched the pianists in the gathering. It was an equal delight for us guitarists to be reminded so directly how monumental the piano repertoire has been in every period, with its enormous, varied sonic legacy.
I personally believe that the classical guitar is a young instrument, as Western classical instruments go. I like to declaim wryly that we’ve never had someone of the stature of Chopin, Liszt or Debussy writing guitar music, at the time when these legendary composers were creating what has become an indelible part of human cultural history and has been vastly influential across time, instruments and genres.
It took some essential technological innovation for the guitar to be heard, literally. Nylon strings, as a consequence of materials research approximately around World War II, organised acoustic engineering resulting in fundamentally new methods of guitar construction, modern amplification with its complete sonic transparency: all these have led to completely unprecedented compositional approaches. Any of Leo Brouwer’s Concerti would not work unless the guitar is properly amplified. Even for the solo guitar, I can’t imagine Toru Takemitsu’s All in Twilight being performed successfully for a concert hall audience by a Segovia-era guitarist un-amplified, on an instrument from that time (though the dedicatee Julian Bream might, legitimately, disagree!).
Tuhin voiced a question – can a guitar really duet successfully with a piano, given that, superficially, both instruments have a pronounced attack with a quick decay (paraphrasing moderately). I responded that, in my understanding, the modern amplified classical guitar would provide a substantially different tone colour from the piano: possibly just enough to make well-written duets rewarding and worth listening to. And then, pianists can always use their pedals to create harmonic textures which are the envy of any guitarist.
There must be some music out there which genuinely puts the piano and the guitar together in an effective duet context (rather than relegating the piano to playing orchestral reductions). In the meantime. Tuhin has proposed some very intriguing ideas which are likely to take shape in the next few months.
Do watch this space. Sonic palettes, from very diverse backgrounds, are poised to mix.