Mēla Guitar Quartet

Concert Series
Red Maids’ Performing Arts Centre
Saturday 13th November 2021

How on earth did they play those notes in Flight of the Bumblebee encore? Answer at the end.

The Mēla Guitar Quartet takes its name from the Sanskrit word for ‘Festival’, and their programming and outstanding performance this evening meet that description entirely. It was a joy to reignite the Covid-interrupted BCGS Concert Series in such spectacular style.

From the outset the quartet’s expert technique is front and centre as the Bacchanale in the temple, before Samson and his enemies meet their dramatic end, dances to with evocative eastern harmonies that gather to a fast-paced climax. The delightful range of effects and tone extends still further through Houghton’s beautiful Opals suite, composed for guitar quartet and using fascinating resources to evoke the sparkling plays of light inside the gemstones. Another leap in style sees the group next combine Hendrix’s Hey Joe and an early work for recorder by Handel in a rollicking work that is the title track of their 2018 CD. It lives up to its name, full of bent notes, percussion and classical/atonal harmonies, demanding of the listener at times, but enormous fun and fascinating to hear and watch.

Debussy’s Arabesques provide calm and a musical contrast and again showcase the wonderful technique and coordination of the group, with harp-like cascades rendered cleverly through arpeggios and left-hand runs spread across the four instruments. The speed of these shared figures goes up a whole gear in the powerful arrangement of Glinka’s Overture that rounds off the first half.

Over drinks many audience members are commenting that they don’t remember experiencing a display of skill and musicality like this, and in the second half the rollercoaster continues. Anthony Burgess’ arrangement of Weber has what feels, by this stage of the evening, an almost unusual degree of formality; a moment back on familiar ground. Excellent programming again. One of the highlights of the concert, though, must be Laura Snowden’s My Clock is Broken!. It is intricate and engrossing, with a Pink Floyd-like storyline, slide guitar part, and long fade at the end; rivetingly original composing and an interpretation that held the audience rapt.

The final part of the programme is the Brazilian section. Milhaud’s lightness of touch, Gismonti/Brouwer’s lush, singing melodies and Assad’s tropical, lilting beauty all require the range of the guitar’s resources and a breathtaking array of extended technique in the players. The set of arrangements works wonderfully here, and throughout the performance, Dan Bovey, George Tarlton and Matt Robinson’s own arrangements maintain the delightfully unusual characteristic of sharing the work across all four instruments, avoiding the fixed distribution of voices or roles among the players in some guitar quartets. The result is a series of fascinating and delightful sight-and-sound performance pieces.

And then the Rimsky-Korsakov encore, a tour de force to cap a performance that itself merits that title.

The word ‘magical’ comes to mind when one is immersed in such a varied programme and continuously amazing playing, from the sublime and sensitive to the hair-raisingly energetic. Our thanks and congratulations to the players, composers and arrangers.

The answer to the opening question is teased on the group’s Facebook page: “Nobody is playing semiquavers!! Any guesses as to what cheeky tricks we use to play these swarms of notes?“. I recommend heartily to the curious that they watch the video there and go and see the Mēla Guitar Quartet in concert at the earliest opportunity.

Nick Regan