Visiting Artist series:
Harris Becker recital & masterclass
Thursday 6 June 2019
Unitarian Chapel, Brunswick Square
Thanks to some skilful juggling of schedules on both sides, we were delighted to be able to welcome back to the Classical Guitar Society US teacher, festival director and concert artist Harris Becker after more than 10 years, to give us a recital and hold a masterclass for our members. Harris tirelessly seeks new projects and repertoire for the guitar worldwide. He is the founder and Director of the Long Island Guitar Festival (USA).
Tonight, Harris offered us a demanding programme spanning the 1600s and 2010s, from baroque to contemporary. He began with Albéniz’s celebrated Cádiz from the Suite española, delivering its wonderful light and shade, rolling arpeggios and lovely melody expertly. This was followed by John Williams’ Madrugada, from the 2017 On the Wing CD. It is a simple melody evoking dawn beautifully and demonstrating Williams’ not inconsiderable compositional skills; its simplicity hides the need for careful phrasing and voicing. Harris delivered Williams’ intentions sensitively, as only a fellow guitarist might. He then took us back to Spain with Torroba’s complex, modern and deeply Spanish-sounding Madroños. Again, the technical demands were high, but he interpreted both this and Enrique Granados’ Spanish Dance No. 10 with assured skill. Harris’ interest in contemporary music came to the fore again in Carlo Domeniconi’s Toccata in Blue, a tribute to Gershwin’s masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue. The piece sets off in a boogie-woogie direction, but quickly heads into unfamiliar terrain in high-speed contemporary idiom – campanella, running arpeggios and jazz harmonies that all place very high demands on the player and listener. Harris rendered it with flair. The final item on the programme was a leap back through time and space to Bach and BWV 998. The lilting prelude, the masterful building of the fugue and bright, fast-flowing allegro all pose great difficulties in voicing and positional play that Harris dealt with carefully and easily. He treated us to an encore, again of piano music in Malats’ fabulous Serenata Española, and again delivering the very Iberian voices with great character.
Cádiz Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909)
Madrugada John Williams (b. 1941)
Madroños F. M. Torroba (1891–1982)
Spanish Dance No. 10 Enrique Granados (1867–1916)
Toccata in Blue Carlo Domeniconi (b. 1947)
Prelude, fugue and allegro (BWV 998) J. S. Bach (1685–1750)
In keeping with his personal mission as a teacher and promoter of the guitar, Harris held masterclasses in the second half of the evening.
Luke Bartlett takes the hotseat first. He has clearly worked on his piece, and Harris is able to offer further guidance on identifying and applying accents in the melody to give it shape and to engage the audience in the interpretation. Staccato can be used to create colour.
Matt Boyton is working on Andrew York’s Squares Suspended, and he and we were treated to a lesson in creating the illusion of suspended phrases, like bowed notes, that the guitar cannot easily render. He also insists on relaxing and moving as little as possible in positional changes.
Harris continually asks the players Do you like that?; What do you want to do there?, encouraging personal investment and looking for the music in the simplest phrase. He says we should not work unnecessarily hard; take time to plant the left hand before striking the string, and place the right-hand fingers on the string to control the stroke. Both edges of the right-hand nails can be used, to achieve different tones.
Ciaran Elster brings Dowland’s Lacrimae Pavan, and Harris advises studying the words of the text to get the feel for the phrasing of the melody, so as then to be able to separate it confidently from the accompanying voices. Also, differentiate call from response.
Vince Smith brings Stefan Rak’s Temptation of the Renaissance. The piece is spirited and fast: Harris points out that speed is facilitated by a solid pulse, driven by quieter inner voices and louder higher voices. Practise very slowly at first, one phrase at a time; rhythm is key.
Masterclasses are a privilege and an education for all present, both players and audience. We are very grateful to Harris for making this true tonight, and for his energy in giving us a recital and masterclasses on the same evening.