Review / Double the bliss amid musical magic

Music / Grigoryan Brothers and Beijing Guitar Duo. At The Playhouse, August 20. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

The New-York based Beijing Guitar Duo.

A CONCERT by guitarist brothers Slava and Leonard Grigoryan is always going to be one of bliss. But when the New York-based Beijing Guitar Duo of Meng Su and Yameng Wang joins them on stage, the bliss is doubled.

Whether it’s the fire and romance of Bizet’s “Carmen” or the pointe and pirouette of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”, or anything in between, these four very fine musicians enthralled their audience in a concert of sublime music-making, with melody lines passing seamlessly all around the group, and rhythms, accomps, harmonies and counter-harmonies in perfect balance.

There were traditional guitar techniques mixed with new, embellished by old harmonies and new harmonics, percussive tapping, and an exploration of the length and breadth of all four instruments.

However, what was most interesting was that a group of four standard guitars could create so many textures, so much richness of colour and so much poetry.

There was music from China, with the Beijing duo performing four pieces from Tan Dun’s first composition, “Eight Memories in Watercolour”, written for piano. He later was to compose the score for the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. The sounds of China were very evident in this charming arrangement for duo guitars, pronounced by the composer to be better than the original composition, with the guitars intriguingly emulating traditional Chinese instruments, such as the guzheng, or Chinese zither.

Closing the first half was “Opals”, written in 1993 (and revised a few times since), by the brilliant Australian guitarist/composer, Phillip Houghton, who, sadly, died suddenly in September last year. In three movements, “Black Opal”, “Water Opal”, and “White Opal”, this work was inspired by “a single black opal that sang to [him]”. He was “in the middle of nowhere”, on his way back to Sydney and spent 80 of his last $81 to buy it. It’s a rather moody but evocative piece and the quartet effortlessly brought all its colour, light and shade to the mind’s eye.

Opening the second half, the four guitars came together for an arrangement, by Hong Kong-born Gerald Garcia, of a Chinese folk song “Spring Snow”, originally intended for the pipa, or Chinese lute. The arranger said this was “music therapy for your lungs”. Once again there were hints of Chinese traditional instruments, peppered with plenty of western influences.

In the Grigoryan’s set, they played arrangements by their father, Eduard, of “Arioso”, the sinfonia from JS Bach’s Cantata BWV 156, a profoundly beautiful arrangement, and Tchaikovsky’s “None But the Lonely Heart”, written for voice and piano, given something of a Latin feel. The brothers did their father proud.

At the end of the performance, the audience, filling the stalls of The Playhouse, was treated to an encore – two dances by the Spanish composer, Francisco Tárrega. The first, very much in the fiery Spanish style, and the second in a quieter, softer vein.

This was a splendid concert, and, hopefully, it won’t be too long before the Grigoryans and the Beijing Guitar Duo will be back to wield their magic once again.

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