Take Your Pick, ‘Virtuosity in all Stripes’

A Preview of the Santa Barbara Symphony Guitar Festival

The genesis of the Santa Barbara Symphony’s Guitar Festival – which starts tonight and will bring more than a dozen performers to town for concerts and recitals over the next 10 days – can be traced back at least a decade to when Symphony Executive Director John Robinson was working at the New England Conservatory of Music. It was on his daily trek down Boston’s main thoroughfare that he noticed just how pervasive the guitar had become in America’s musical landscape.

“I’d drive down Massachusetts Avenue on the way to the conservatory and first I’d pass Tower Records and there would be someone playing folk guitar,” he recalled in his office last week. “When I’d pass the Berklee School of Music, there would be rock ‘n’ roll or jazz guitarists sitting out in the sun, just practicing. And down the street great classical guitarists would be rehearsing at Symphony Hall or Jordan Hall or the conservatory itself. I saw then just how the guitar draws so many people together. It’s always been the instrument that speaks to the widest variety of people.”

Robinson is hoping the symphony’s first of a planned bi-annual guitar events will be similarly inclusive here in Santa Barbara. He put together a full week-plus of concerts at more than a half dozen venues, ranging from chamber music to jazz and flamenco. And he thinks he’s on the right track in his adopted home.

“When you look at The Independent, every other page there’s a guitar – whether it’s reggae, Jack Johnson, ZZ Top or a folk singer,” he says. “My theory is that people who play guitar appreciate virtuosity in all stripes. So when they hear almost any genre, what they see is fingers whipping up and down the fret board, an amazing talent playing. They appreciate it even if it isn’t what they normally listen to.”

Finding the artistic directors for the inaugural festival was a no-brainer: Robinson simply called the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, which he managed for several years just prior to joining the symphony, and enlisted their help in coming up with a wide-ranging series of events designed to draw fans of all kinds of music who have an appreciation for the guitar.

The guitar quartet, which has drawn audiences from a wide spectrum of bases – from the stuffiest classical chambers to out-and-out rock ‘n’ rollers who marvel at the quartet’s dexterity and range – is anchoring the festival with performances in three different formats. Next Thursday’s recital performance at the Lobero will showcase the foursome’s amazing flexibility with a program that includes a gorgeous transcription of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto and a work by Liszt plus several selections of Brazilian and other Latin American music. On February 17, they’ll offer a family guitar concert in the afternoon and then join the Santa Barbara Symphony for the festival finale. That program will include Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto Andaluz, the only acknowledged masterwork for four guitars and orchestra.

The quartet’s mastery of the piece, says Robinson, has been both a blessing and a curse.

“It’s the one sort of official masterpiece of the genre, but it’s also the only one that’s out there,” he says. “When I managed the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, they’d go to a new city and draw new audiences and have a resounding success with the Rodrigo. Then the orchestra would want to have them back and that’s where the conversation would hit a dead end. What would they play the next time?”

John Dearman, a member of the quartet, agreed with that assessment in a telephone interview last weekend. “There are other works out there for quartets, but none has achieved the popularity of Rodrigo,” Dearman says. “But it’s very challenging to get a well-known composer to write for a guitar quartet mainly because there isn’t much chance for it to get played. And most composers aren’t familiar with writing for guitar. It’s a tough challenge to overcome.”

The festival’s finale is taking a small step toward resolving that issue by also premiering a new work commissioned from Peter Madlem, a Santa Barbara composer and guitarist who worked as a Hollywood arranger and composer for Disney. Madlem, who has put music on the back burner for a career as a portfolio analyst for Northern Trust Bank, worked with the guitarists and Robinson to hone the piece that will have its first hearing next weekend.

“It started out as being a theme based on the California missions, but it went through a lot of revisions,” Dearman explains. “What we have now is a one-movement work based on baroque guitar music from the seventeenth century. It’s the kind of piece that has potential to be very popular. It’s quite virtuosic, fun to play and listen to. Our mission is to find the right combination of things to put around it to fill out a program.”

Here’s the list of events at the Guitar Festival:

February 9 & 11: Westmont College Chamber Orchestra featuring guitar faculty member Patrick Anderson, who performs Vivaldi's Guitar Concerto and Rodrigo's "Fantasía para un gentilhombre” (Friday, 8 pm, Victoria Hall; Sunday, 7 pm, El Montecito Presbyterian Church; $5, students free).

February 12: Downbeat’s Jazz Guitarist of the Year Jimmy Bruno (7 pm, SOhO, $20).

February 13: Flamenco sensation Adam del Monte (8 pm, Lobero, $30).

February 14: Spanish virtuoso Pablo Sáinz Villegas, the 2006 Christopher Parkening Competition winner (8 pm, Lobero, $30).

February 15: Los Angeles Guitar Quartet in recital (8 pm, Lobero, $30 & $40).

February 16: Jazz guitarist Jim Hall teams up with bassist Dave Holland for a Jazz at the Lobero concert (8 pm, Lobero, $35 & $45).

February 17: Family Guitar Concert with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, a 60-minute presentation exploring rock, jazz, classical, bluegrass, flamenco and more (noon, Arlington, $10, ages 5-15 $5, under 5 free)

February 17-18 Festival Final: Los Angeles Guitar Quartet joins Santa Barbara Symphony to perform Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto Andaluz and the world premiere of Peter Madlem’s Preludio y Danza. Also on the program: Falla’s Interlude & Dance from “La Vida Breve,” Bizet’s “Carmen Suite” and Revueltas’s “Janitzio” (Saturday, 8 pm, Sunday 3 pm Arlington; $25-$59).

Free Lunchtime Concerts (noon to 1 pm in front of the Santa Barbara Art Museum at 1130 State Street; repeats each evening at 6 pm in the lobby of Hotel Andalucia, 31 West Carrillo Street).

February 12: Thirteen-year-old guitar phenom Colin Davin

February 13: Up-and-coming guitar quartet student guitarist Tim Callobre

February 14: Michael Aberle/Jim Garcia duo

February 15: Chris Judge

February 16: Santa Barbara Mariachis