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Guitar Festival: Bach meets Jimi Hendrix in concerts this week

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 10, 2008 - St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director and Conductor David Robertson likens this week's Guitar Festival to a "Pre-Thanksgiving dinner" in which various stringed instruments and those who play them get together for a feast over which they can share conversation and celebrate their similarities, however distant.

"I've always been fascinated by family resemblances, either in people or music or in cultures and languages," Robertson says. "And one of the biggest family resemblances that I don't think a lot of people make all the time is that the largest number of instruments in one family in a symphony orchestra are the strings. And those stringed instruments are related to other stringed instruments around the world, and one of the most popular is the guitar."

This week, Robertson, the Symphony and other musicians will celebrate the guitar in a series of concerts held at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the Pageant and Powell Symphony Hall.

Tonight and tomorrow night at the Pulitzer, guitarist Jason Vieaux will play music from Bach that was originally written for the lute. Carrying his Thanksgiving metaphor forward, Robertson jokes that the lute is a relative of the string family that "couldn't get a flight, so will have to be at the family gathering on Skype."

Vieaux will also perform music by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny on classical guitar. Another guitarist, Steve Mackey, will then perform "Physical Property," an original piece for guitar and string quartet, and also songs by rock icon Jimi Hendrix arranged for string quartet.

Thursday's show at the Pageant promises to be the most challenging, with pieces by several avant garde composers. Among them is Glenn Branca, who was commissioned by the SLSO to pen his 14th symphony, "The Harmonic Series," the first movement of which will receive its world premiere under Robertson's baton. Also on the program are Frank Zappa's "G Spot Tornado" and Edgard Varese's "Aracana."

"G Spot Tornado" is a piece that Zappa wrote thinking as a guitarist," Robertson says. "And yet it works beautifully for the orchestra and brings that kind of energy to it. And of course, Zappa was tremendously influenced by the orchestral work of Edgard Varese, who, although not a guitarist, really thinks of sound the way a lot of rock guitarists actually do."

The featured piece of the evening, though, is Branca's Symphony No. 13, "Hallucination City," which will be performed by 100 guitarists.

"It's an idea that could only occur to somebody who looks at a symphony orchestra and says, 'Hey, they've really got a lot of violins and violas and cellos there'," Robertson says. "'What would happen if I do the same thing [with guitars]?'" It's quite a monumental work.

Robertson will be joining the "band" for "Hallucination City." He's been learning the guitar over the past couple of years, having received one as a Christmas gift from his wife.

The program at Powell Friday and Saturday spotlights bass guitarist John Patitucci, who, with 19 other bassists, will perform the U.S. premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's "A Prayer Out of Stillness." Also featured is another SLSO commission and U.S. premiere: Steve Mackey's "Beautiful Passing," featuring violinist Leila Josefowicz.

Robertson says Mackey "can think like a guitarist yet is a consummate musician in a classical vein. The piece is actually a violin concerto that will be performed by violinist Leila Josefowicz.

"You wouldn't necessarily think of it as being a piece that's guitar-inspired," Robertson says. "And yet, many of the actual musical ideas in it, and the way Steve Mackey puts those ideas together, makes sense once you know he's a guitarist. You suddenly being to see another dimension of the music."

The festival wraps up with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," which Robertson calls "probably the first really big rock and roll scandal of classical music [in that its premiere incited riots]. "It tapped into that sort of thing that, particularly in rock music, all bands are trying to achieve - that exquisite sort of sound which is at one time very light and transparent one moment and the next can get so tremendously visceral that it actually affects the rate of your heartbeat, moving it slower or faster depending on how the music wants you to go."

Robertson's own heart skipped a beat recently when he was practicing his guitar and found that the chords used in a Bob Marley song he was learning - "I think it was 'Stir It Up'," he says - are "the same voicing in A major that Beethoven uses in his 7th Symphony. The previous week in St. Louis, I had just conducted Beethoven's 7th, so it was really in my mind. If I was playing with the recording, I was hearing Bob Marley. If I was playing by myself, I was hearing Beethoven's 7th. I thought to myself, 'This is exactly what the guitar festival is all about'."

Pulitzer Concerts 

  • Guitarists Steve Mackey and Jason Vieaux
  • 7:30 p.m., Nov. 11 & 12
  • The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
  • 3716 Washington Boulevard

The Pageant

  • Composer-guitarist Steve Mackey, guitar wizard John Patitucci, David Robertson and 97 St. Louis guitarists
  • 8 p.m., Nov. 13
  • The Pageant
  • 6161 Delmar

Powell Hall

  • More from Steven Mackey, plus Stravinsky and Mark-Anthony Turnage
  • 8 p.m., Nov. 14 & 15
  • Powell Symphony Hall
  • 718 North Grand


Dan Durchholz is a freelance journalist.