A guitar in the orchestra? No, an orchestra of guitars

Walter Tunis
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The guitar music of Spain isn't exactly a new artistic voice to audiences and artists in the United States.

For years — centuries, really — the music's sense of expression, drama and technical virtuosity have been remarkably pervasive. Performers continually cite innovators including the great Andres Segovia as influences; scholars emphasize the importance of a musical heritage that extends back to the Renaissance; and instrument manufacturers refer to 19th-century Spanish advancements in design as pivotal to what is accepted today as the modern classical guitar.

But it wasn't until last week that one of Spain's most recent guitar innovations reached North America. That was when the Orquestra de Guitarras de Barcelona — the Guitar Orchestra of Barcelona — began its first U.S. tour and magnified the beauty, precision and, quite literally, the orchestration of the Spanish guitar.

Conducted by educator and instrumentalist Sergi Vicente, the orchestra is composed of 25 or more musicians playing the same instrument. It also includes piano accompanists and percussionists.

"The whole orchestra was very impressed by the public at our first concert," Vicente said through interpreter Ludovica Mosca, an acclaimed pianist and president of the JPC Iniciativa Musical, the association that organized the tour.

"There were 1,700 people at the concert. Their presence was immediately felt, right from the very first piece," Vicente said.

The guitar orchestra's roots date back two decades, to smaller ensembles of eight or so players that Vicente organized with his students. At the time, there was little thought to anything larger.

"At the beginning, it was more of an educational function," Vicente said. "It was part of my teaching. We didn't think about realizing anything bigger. Then, little by little, the orchestra went through its evolution."

"Sergi is the soul of the group," Mosca said. "What we felt at the response to the first concert (of the United States tour) ... I don't think you can describe it in words. We felt like we were defying gravity."

The guitar orchestra's repertoire is considerable. Its self-titled 2001 recording sports Vicente's arrangements of two pieces by contemporary Argentine tango pioneer Astor Piazzolla. Vicente also said that among his future projects is an arrangement of Bach's "Brandenburg Concertos" for the guitar orchestra.

For the orchestra's U.S. tour, Vicente is placing his homeland in the spotlight with a program devoted to Spanish works by, among others, the late 19th- and early 20th-century composers Isaac Albeniz and Manuel de Falla. Vicente's arrangement of Albeniz's "Suite Espanola No. 1 for Piano, Op. 47, B.7" is among the highlights of the 2001 recording and is one of the finer examples of the ensemble's orchestral dynamics.

"Sergi and myself, we know that in America, and all over, Spanish music is very much loved and appreciated," Mosca said. "It really reaches the hearts of people."

Arranging works for the guitar orchestra presents its own set of challenges, but conducting the group in concert presents quite another, especially because Vicente is one of the performers.

"Since most of the guitarists have been students of Sergi Vicente, all of them use essentially the same technique," Mosca said. "They also play everything from memory. Because he cannot conduct with his hands, his conducts with his eyes or with a turning of his head. Sergi is the center of the energy. But when you see all of these musicians playing, from the first note to the last, by memory, it is amazing.

"The members all have maturity and experience, but they play with freshness and joy. I don't think there could be a better moment for them to start here in your country."

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