Johannes Möller’s “Chinese Impressions” at MTSU

This free concert was presented by the MTSU Center for Chinese Music and Culture. Guitarist and composer Johannes Möller gave a performance in MTSU’s Hinton Hall. Möller is from Sweden and living and teaching in Amsterdam while traveling and performing all over the world. His interest in world musics has led to projects of recording and writing in Indian and Chinese styles as well as others.

Dr. Mei Han, Director of the Center, introduced Möller to the audience and, noting the frigid temperature of the hall, charmed them by saying “our guest’s beautiful tone will warm your hearts.” The scene was set with a zheng (Chinese long zither to be played by Han), a stool and guitar, and a small, round, wooden table Möller occasionally used as a music stand.

The opening work “The City of Guitar” is a dedication to the Chinese city Zheng’an, where Möller visited in the last year and is now ambassador for Zheng’an guitars. According to the program information, it is a city dedicated to guitar making and has a museum, tower, and concert hall dedicated to guitar. The piece is a lovely miniature, with a light theme returning in an ABA form. It was an enjoyable opener which Möller played with exquisite tone. An attachable pickup wired to the hall sound system gave the guitar a volume boost but did not hinder Möller’s ability to play expressively. His second original piece put the amplification to the test with swelling tremolo and dynamic rasgueado. It was a beautiful sonic painting with a low E ostinato providing stability.

Möller then introduced a set of three Francisco Tárrega pieces from the traditional classical guitar repertoire. He spoke of the Alhambra in Spain and its many fountains and described the famous Recuerdos de La Alhambra piece as imitating dripping waters. This imagery foreshadowed nearly all of the Chinese music that followed in which they depicted various natural scenes. “Maria” was almost aggressive enough with glissandos executed with perfection while “Lagrima” was treated gently and passionately. By the time Recuerdos was performed, I was confident it was in the hands of a virtuoso and relaxed to enjoy a colorful interpretation with flawless tremolo technique.

Fans of modern fingerstyle guitar playing which includes percussive string slaps, harmonics, and tapping will love Möller’s 2018 album Eternal Dream. He performed four selections in Monday’s program and surely surprises classical guitar audiences with them. Compositional aspects include alternate tunings, syncopated rhythms, and melodies in the low register of the guitar.

“My Homeland” is a beautiful arrangement of a traditional Chinese song from the album “China” and is published in sheet music form. It preceded a duo performance of Liuyang River for zheng and guitar which could only be topped by another duo performance of Moonlit Night on Spring River. Originally a Pipa solo, this traditional Chinese piece is very well known. According to Möller, it is to Chinese music what Recuerdos de La Alhambra is to classical guitar music.

After performing together, Dr. Mei Han and Johannes Möller embraced and received well deserved applause. She then reminded him of the set of Chinese Impressions he had skipped in the program and he graciously sat to perform them, apologizing for his jet lag! These three original compositions were Möller’s impressions of China and Chinese music and are well worth hearing. The performer seemed most intimate with this set of music and played with many changes in color and tone. The final impression “Grains at harvest is the farmer’s joy” was bursting with joy at an allegro tempo.

Prof. Mei Han and Johannes Möller

Programmed as the finale, Night Flame is an original composition from the India (2016) album. Möller explained that a raga is composed within certain parameters and he enjoyed this challenge. Contrasting with the Chinese music, Night Flame was dark, more dissonant, and characteristically Indian sounding. It was not as virtuosic as expected, except for some arpeggio passages, but then again not much of the program was virtuosic. Only Möller’s phenomenal tone stood out through the entirety of the concert. A cadenza of rasgueado moving chords and fast descending passages brought the piece to an end. It was a captivating concert and a unique bridging of two sonic worlds, guitar and eastern music.

After both Han and Möller received a bouquet each, they performed an anthem for National Day in China which falls on the first of October every year.

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