From Clarksville

Stanley Yates, The Farewell Concert?

Years ago I was sitting in the flute section of a regional orchestra in California. The inventive Board had hired an up-and-coming acolyte of the Boston Symphony’s famed Seiji Ozawa to conduct our next concert. Kent Nagano, now internationally respected in his own right, started our first rehearsal with a story of his first time conducting the BSO. They were reading through an extremely challenging contemporary score he had studied for months. When the read-through ended, he stood there stunned. Panicked thoughts ricocheted through his head. It was perfect! They’re so good! What could I possibly have to say?

José Luis Merlin

Listening to Stanley Yates, internationally respected guitarist, this memory returned in full force. It was perfect! He’s so good! What could I possibly have to say? But, like Nagano, once I calmed down from the stunned silence of my thoughts, I realized that pure excellence had initially overwhelmed my powers of observation. For one of the rare times in my experience, I could delve into ambrosial details.

The recital, performed in Clarksville TN on October 17, 2023, memorialized the historical development of guitar repertoire, a tombeau de guitar, if you will. Opening with 16th-century lutenist-composer John Dowland, moving through 19th-century guitarist Fernando Sor, into eminent 20th-century composers whose primary instrument was not a guitarist (Manuel de Falla, Heitor Villa Lobos, Enrique Granados), ending as it began with guitarist-composers, but this time the 21st-century versions: Leo Brouwer, Stěpán Rak, and José Luis Merlin.

Typically, I don’t enjoy modern players performing my research specialty, Renaissance dance music. All too often, they bring a 19th-century uber-emotional sensibility to the works while dismissing the rhythmic and tempo aspects that define dance. I was delightfully surprised that, after a lovely free introduction, Yates maintained a gentle sense of pulse into Dowland’s pavane (a slow processional dance), mostly reserving the free ornamentation for cadential moments where free-rhythm bows to noble partners would have occurred. Additionally, each internal line came through with crystalline clarity, a remarkable feat.

I’m not sure why, but Yates apologized in advance for the Sor. Granted, the “Fantaisie élégiaque” is a somewhat extended piece, a fifteen-minute one-movement work, but I wondered if, though charmingly done, it could be seen as a bit patronizing. The Clarksville audience is increasingly sophisticated and, in fact, this was the first performance since I’ve returned to Tennessee where the audience did not interrupt works with applause in inappropriate places.

Stěpán Rak

The Sor, in two sections, much like an operatic pairing of the free recitative and its rhythmic aria, opened with sturm und drang [storm and stress] elements, which the guitar’s natural delicacy transformed into a more galant style. In the funeral march that followed Yates skillfully retained the well-defined contrapuntal technique used in the Dowland.

The quartet of “Latin” pieces by Spaniards de Falla (Homage a Debussy) and Granados, Brazilian Villa Lobos (Etude #8), Cuban Brouwer (Elegie de la Danza) exuded elegance and, in the case of the Granados’ “Orientale,” a tender melancholy. I began to wonder if the performance was “too safe.” It may be almost churlish to question non-stop excellence, but especially in the Latin pieces with occasional flamenco or fandango influence, some of the expected fire seemed missing.

However, any concerns on this front were mitigated by the Rak and, in particular, three encore pieces by Argentinian José Luis Merlin. These works allowed the audience to glimpse a more adventurous Yates, one open to cultures outside classical Western European tradition, one with the wisdom to recognize and the bold willingness to promote contemporary work of the highest quality like Rak’s “Czech Tales.” Its atonal spots added spice to the charming playfulness with a touch of melancholy typical of Eastern European music, a reminder that European fairy tales like those of the Brothers Grimm were far more brutal than the sugarcoated Disney-fied versions. Tapping rock rhythms on the guitar’s body brought the music up to date.

Three works from Merlin’s Suite de Recuerdo [Suite of Memories]—Evocación, Carnevalito, Joropo—evoked my own souvenirs of Peru. The little carnivals all over Cusco and women swirling their colorful skirts as they danced the joropo were a perfect finish for an afternoon of elegant professionalism swirling with colorful excellence.

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