It goes without saying that John Williams has enjoyed a reputation and career that is matched by few guitarists. There are also few performers who have been able to sustain a career at his level, both in the sheer amount of repertoire that he has explored and in its diversity, for such a long time. On Sunday afternoon (March 20, 2011), I attended a solo recital that John Williams gave at Spivey Hall in Morrow GA.
First of all, there are very few artists who I will take the time to drive over three hours to see, but having never seen Williams play a solo recital, I decided to go. Spivey Hall is an impressive venue. It is acoustically amazing and the 400-seat hall seems perfectly suited to guitar performance. Somehow, I was able to have a front row seat just to Williams’ left, the perfect seat for anyone (like a guitarist) who wants to watch the details of the performance closely.
The program consisted of the repertoire that Williams has helped to make famous throughout his long career, including pieces by Brouwer, Barrios, and Villa-Lobos. The program opened with all five of the preludes written for guitar by Villa-Lobos. The opening set provided enough breaks for late-comers and Williams seemed happy to warm-up with them, though most guitarists will know these pieces quite well. Following this was an addition to the program, a lovely piece by Couperin, of which I did not catch the name. Next was El Decameron Negro, the famous piece by Leo Brouwer. While the whole piece was played well, the second movement was especially interpreted well and was quite beautiful. At this point, Williams began to display his characteristically impressive command of guitar technique, but with impressive musical sensitivity. The Brouwer concluded the first half of the program.
The second half was much more diverse in its offering and showed Williams’ versatility as an artist and his willingness to explore music of other cultures. It opened with a piece from the album The Magic Box, which is a recording in which Williams explored African music. This piece O Bia, by the late African composer Bebey, was some of the most joyful music that I have ever heard. O Bia provided the rhythmic framework for Williams’ composition, Hello Francis. The next two pieces were composed by Williams and recorded on his most recent release From a Bird. Both pieces are based upon bird songs that Williams heard in Australia and were lovely, short pieces.
Following these was a nice set of music by Paraguayan composer Agustin Barrios. The set began with La Catedral, which was played marvelously and with precision. The gorgeous Julia Florida followed and was played with a beautiful sensitivity to melody and sense of contrast in the form. Next was a set of two waltzes, the well-known Op. 8, no. 3 and 4. These were also played very well, though I could have used a bit more rhythmic flexibility and contrast between sections throughout these pieces. The final piece on the program was Un Sueno in la Floresta, the large tremolo work by Barrios. This piece was handled well with expressive execution of the tremolo, especially with regards to dynamic changes and tone color, which can be quite difficult during the tremolo. Overall, the Barrios pieces were the well-played of the concert. The technical demands were met with ease, but more important than the technical prowess was the presence of a real sense of musicality. This was expressed through technique in terms of dynamics and timbre, but also in musical space with regards to rhythmic flexibility. For encores, Williams played two Venezuelan dance pieces from his recording El Diablo Suelto.
I enjoyed the concert, but I also tried to learn as much from it as I could, and given my fortune in seating, I treated it as a masterclass of sorts. Williams seemed uninterested in the pretense often found at classical concerts and took every opportunity to talk with the audience in a friendly and frequently humorous manner, bringing them information about the pieces and the composers. He also took his time between pieces, when speaking, and when tuning. When starting a piece however, there was no delay or excess hesitation, it was straight into the pieces with ease. I was struck by his stage presence and security of performance, which one would expect from someone who has been performing at a high level for over a half-century, but it is still remarkable. There isn’t much point in talking about his technique, which was graceful and impressive.
I was also struck by the fact that John Williams is 70 years old! He seemed youthful and gave a great concert. I can only hope that my fingers move half as well by my seventieth year. For some people, Williams is viewed as an inexpressive, technical player. I didn’t find this to be the case on Sunday and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I noticed a fine sense of nuance that, while certainly not overly expressive, did make for an enjoyable performance.