Monday, February 24, 2014

Warm Sounds in Winter: a Master Guitar Class

I come for the concert, but stay for the master class.
            Piano teacher Ellyses Kuan tells me that her studio is hosting a master class in guitar at the Braintree public library to be taught by guitarist Zaira Meneses and invites me to attend because the master guitarist will also be performing the famous guitar concerto "Concierto de Arunjez" by Joaquin Rodrigo.

            In a master class, the teacher works one-on-one with an advanced student on improving technique or other matters of musical performance. I have caught glimpses of these in symphony halls on a few occasions and know that music lovers regard them as both entertaining and educational. You get to hear a highly accomplished musician explain a philosophy, demonstrate an approach. You learn watching someone who is very, very good at what they do share their insights with a student.

            Ellyses is a wonderful, dramatic pianist whom I heard combine with guitarist Robert Betters in a duet performance a few months back. She will accompany the guitarist in Rodrigo's concerto.

            When I enter the small auditorium, Zaira Meneses, a faculty member at New England Conservatory's continuing education school and a critically praised performer, is working with a girl of about 11. The girl has her fingers on the neck of the instrument and Zaira is telling her how to move them in an exercise that makes use of a concrete picturesque analogy. She compares the fingers of the hand to the members of a family. "This one," she says to the student, adjusting her figners, "always stays with its brother."

            Then we get to the issue of practice. "Do you like to practice?" She makes a face. "No, it gets boring?" But you don't have to do it for an hour, she says, only ten minutes at a time. "How many times do you brush your teeth each day?" "Three," replies the well-drilled youngster. 
            Zaira shares a frank look at the audience: not the answer she expected. "Sometimes I do it only twice," she confides; then follows this with a brief aside on American dining habits: "Hmm, you have the lunch in this country, and then the dinner." But whether you brush two times a day or three times the message is to do your practice before you brush your teeth.  

            It's apparent that the "master teacher" is completely at home in this role and in performing it in front of an audience. She talks easily without self-consciousness and with a freedom and candor that puts everyone at ease.

            After a short break, I get the musical treat I have come for, the performance of an old favorite. The last time I heard the Concierto, possibly the only time I've heard it live, was when one of the instrument's reigning maestros, Pepe Romero, performed it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. But I've been in love with the slow-movement melody since I first heard it decades ago "borrowed" wholesale by Gil Evans for an album he did with Miles Davis called "Sketches of Spain." You hear Miles play the piercing melody on the trumpet.

            Here, in the library's small room, sitting close to the guitarist, I am swept away from the first notes in the piece's jauntier, sunny first movement.

            The slow movement, with its stirring, dramatic Spanish darkness, goes right through me. A few measures in and I'm tearing up. Who can say why we cry over beautiful music? It's a gift, really, when it happens. You can't program it. You can't anticipate it, with maybe some exceptions (Faure's Requiem, for me). Some grinding of the earth inside relaxes; a little lava pours; the tectonic plates readjust themselves. The fault line settles down.

            This feeling persists through the second movement. And I particularly enjoyed the collaboration of Ellyses's piano and Zaira's guitar in the more formal third movement with its tight tempos.

            After this gift, I have to stay to see Zaira work with an adult student. She shares her wisdom with a man, aged 42, who has returned to the guitar after some years away from it. After he plays two "etudes" by Leo Brower, a 20th century composer, she addresses issues of tempo, fingering and relaxation, offering "a technique the Cubans have" for relaxing the fingers before performing.

            "You're good," she tells the student. "If you cannot play the note the way you want it is not because you are not good, but because you are not relaxed."

            "If you feel like trying something, do it," she says in her discussion of how to express the emotions of the piece. "There must be no repression."

            She illustrates the expressiveness she seeks by offering a sentence or two, "as we say it," in Spanish. Slowing the pace, turning on the smile, weighting certain phrases with implication.
            And then, to illustrate the emotional tone of a particular phrase in the Brower, she launches into a spontaneous story.
            "Imagine the girl, or the woman you love, and you haven't see her for a month" -- ah, I think, I know where this going; but I'm wrong -- "and you have been unable to communicate with her. The email is not working. And then you find out she is going to be married to someone else... And you have one last chance, just a passing moment, to speak her before the ceremony, to explain why you couldn't speak to her, why you were unable to propose to her -- but just at that moment, someone --the mother-in-law -- appears and takes her way --"

            She flies into scolding, warning, possessive Spanish dialogue of this Mexican mother-in-law to illustrate the full pathos of this one poignant moment in the music.
           The poor (or perhaps fortunate) student is being treated to an entire telenovela just to get the right feel for that one note. 
          And then, the remarkable thing, the student plays the etude again, this time much more expressively! It's alive.
           Some people carry this life in their art. And some, apparently, can even teach it. 
(Here's the link to Ellyses Kuan's studio: