Musical String Theories

by Josef Woodard

GUITARS GALORE: Just more than a quarter-century back, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet first convened, back in the day before the idea of a classical guitar quartet was anything more than a novel offshoot of standard classical practice. This group of bright-eyed and ambitious young classical guitarists had a strong connection to the USC guitar department and, specifically, the Romero family of classical guitar heroes. (Of Spanish heritage, the Romeros lived in Santa Barbara upon arriving in California.)

The LAGQ, being William Kanengiser, Scott Tennant, Andrew York, and John Dearman — an Angeleno who also teaches guitar at UCSB — is inherently a more eclectic group than the more traditional Romeros, and it has come a long way since humble beginnings. So has the format the quartet helped to popularize. (By cosmic coincidence, the Santa Fe Guitar Quartet plays at the Museum of Art on May 15.) The group’s appearance in the spring concert series at Los Olivos’s picturesque Dunn School on April 29 comes in the wake of both a Grammy for the last album, Guitar Heroes, and the glow of a strong new album, Spin, both on the Telarc label.

A bold and varied set of pieces by band members and outside composers, including beloved jazz arranger/composer Vince Mendoza, Spin is among the LAGQ’s finest albums yet. It’s proof of a sure sense of identity and also a collective taste for creative evolution. The Dunn performance is a fine, seriously musical excuse to head over the 154 into wine country.

MARRIAGE OF NEW, OLD, AND MORE: Speaking of locally connected classical musicians of note, with a connection to Dunn School (pardon the “speaking of …” device), violinist Michelle Makarski played a memorable concert there years back. Not long after, she moved east along with her violinist husband Ron Copes, who landed the second-violin spot in the esteemed Juilliard String Quartet. A deep, refined, and lustrous new album on the ECM New Series label (a happy label home in recent years) finds Makarski staking her usual intriguing claim to programming and engaging in a couple of duet ops with Copes.

Old marries new in fascinating ways on this album, called To Be Sung on the Water. Makarski gives probing, beautiful readings of solo sonatas by the under-appreciated 18th century Italian composer Giuseppe Tartini, who influenced the better known Corelli. Folded into the Tartini mix, and with a disarming naturalness, are two works by the very much living and thriving composer Donald Crockett. Crockett’s aridly contemplative duet “To Be Sung on the Water” was expressly written for Makarski and Copes in 1988, and “Mickey Finn” is a tonally restless yet meditative solo piece from 1996. Crockett, a longtime USC music department mainstay, is on the faculty with another important composer whose music Makarski and Copes have eloquently performed and recorded.

Among other positive impressions, Makarski’s album points out the intriguing affinity between early and late music, on either side of the huge garish river of Romanticism dividing them.

FLYING SOLO, PART TWO: One of the most cherished live musical events in town last year was a solo piano set by the remarkable Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba at Campbell Hall. Though ostensibly opening for Marcus Roberts’s trio, Rubalcaba’s set was so overflowing with introspection, virtuosity, and mature musical ideas, he handily stole the show.

Now comes his first solo album — called simply Solo (Blue Note) — and it’s a minor masterpiece, certainly one of the season’s top jazz recordings. To call it a “jazz” album only tells part of the story, as Rubalcaba takes the occasion to showcase his myriad musical interests, with shades of Cuban folk music, reflective classical pieces reminiscent of Federico Mompou or Satie, dizzying improvisations based on “Giant Steps,” and a rainy-vibed version of the standard “Here’s that Rainy Day.” He closes with the most sensitive and fresh take on that classic “Bésame Mucho” you’re likely to hear. Don’t miss this one. (Got e? Email

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