Paul Galbraith. At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Thursday, October 19.
Reviewed by Josef Woodard
In the hearing of Paul Galbraith, as at the Museum of Art last week, one instantly senses the presence of greatness. His mastery of tone, articulation, and interpretation, not to mention his resourcefulness as an arranger/transcriber, has made him one of classical guitar’s top artists. In the seeing, though, a Galbraith recital can be slightly jarring, given the classical guitar world’s conservative bent. Scottish-born and São Paulo-based, Galbraith long ago swapped his six-string instrument for an inventive eight-string model, the “Brahms guitar,” which is held upright like a cello. An end pin anchors it in a resonant wooden box for added sonic oomph.
By the second or third live encounter, you’re liable to be an avowed Galbraith fan and wonder why more guitarists haven’t taken up this odd, rich-sounding innovation. For now, Galbraith remains pretty much a hero in a field of one, in terms not only of the tool of his trade, but also his fresh attitude towards the repertoire.
With all due respect to the grand Spanish guitar tradition, which tends to bogart the classical guitar repertoire, there is a wide world of music available for the intrepid arranger. Galbraith takes this notion to heart, adapting such rarities as those he so eloquently played in the intimate acoustics of the SBMA’s Mary Craig Auditorium: Rameau’s Keyboard Suite in A; Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F, K. 280 (classical work on guitar is still a relatively uncharted water, which Galbraith also covered with his great Haydn CD); and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, all of which sounded utterly natural and persuasive on Galbraith’s eight-string guitar.
For contemporary measure, Galbraith played living Czech composer Petr Eben’s fascinating and cerebral Tabulatura Nova — Rhapsodic Variations on an Old Bohemian Love Song, a mixture of dissonance, tension, and folkloric sweetness. The piece ends with a tune in high harmonics — an eerie bit of tenderness after the tumult.
Those who came to bask in Bach, a Galbraith specialty, were also duly served. With his commanding reading of the fourth Bach cello suite and a short, heart-melting arrangement of an organ chorale prelude as an encore, Galbraith’s glorious Bach stirred up the Baroque master’s mixture of emotional epiphany and objective rapture. This remarkable guitarist gets it, among many other secrets in the classical repertoire, whether or not adapted for guitar … yet. Stay tuned.