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Review: Pascal Valois at the American Musicological Society, San Francisco (Lecture-Recital)

As a budding musicologist living in the Bay Area, I couldn’t have avoided this year’s iteration of the AMS meeting if I tried. For four days, the biggest names in music history and criticism convened in an unusually sunny and terse San Francisco. Imagine my excitement when I spied a lecture recital on early-nineteenth century guitar practice in the Parisian scene on the busy program—a particularly surprising listing, given how guitar matters are not exactly the main preoccupation of this Society.

The speaker was Pascal Valois, a guitarist and independent scholar based in Montreal. Valois is a former student of Hopkinson Smith, with whom he recently completed a postdoc at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis—one of the world’s epicenters for early music and historically-minded performance.

The first part of the presentation was dedicated to a brief lecture on the guitar scene in Paris between 1800–1830, a time when both foreign-born and French guitarist-composers represented a major component in the city’s musical life. The abundance of composers, coupled with a healthy publishing industry and the meticulous archival practices of the Bibliothèque Nationale, meant that even today there is no shortage of repertoire and pedagogical material from the time, making it a treasure-trove for students and scholars alike.

Valois’s presentation was terse and succinct. After a discussion of nineteenth-century playing posture, he proceeded to demonstrate some ornamental practices, such as portamenti, arpèges, and harmonics, drawn from the method books of Adolphe Ledhuy, Pierre Joseph Plouvier, and Charles Doisy.

For the performance part, Valois presented a tried-and-true standard such as the Variations on the Magic Flute, Op. 9, by Fernando Sor, juxtaposed to two pieces by French composers I had not encountered before: the opening allegro from the Sonata Brillante by Louis-Ange Carpentras (1786–1854), and Five Andantes (from opp. 8 and 17) by Victor Magnien (1804–1885).

Valois played with grace, elegance, and élan. This repertoire is far from my favorite (let’s just say I would die perfectly happy if I never heard the Sor again), but I thoroughly enjoyed this performance: it was light, effortless, and full of spirit. The previously-unknown pieces were surprisingly good—motivically charming, harmonically inventive, and with a sort of ineffable “French” air. I heard much more counterpoint than you usually do in guitar music of the period, and some textures were almost suggestive of the Style Brisé of late-seventeenth century lutenists.

Performing on an instrument built in 1825, Valois was the right man for the job: he took advantage the shorter scale and lower action of the nineteenth-century guitar by slurring most scalar passages and thus projecting a sense of lightness and grace. His phrasing was similarly remarkable, as he imbued each melody with a beautiful vocal quality.

To top it all off, the audience—consisting largely of non-guitarist, with a couple of notable exceptions—absolutely loved it. As I left, many of the attendees were still showering Valois with questions and compliments. I was especially pleased to see such interest around the guitar in the broader musicological arena. Congratulations to Pascal Valois for his inspiring scholarship and inspired performance—he did the guitar world a great service today.

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