Album Review: The Ben Verdery Guitar Project: On Vineyard Sound – a bold and adventurous offering, pushing the repertoire envelope!

Wow. Wow, wow, wow. No, I’ve not gone all Kate Bush. I’ve just been listening to and reviewing one of the most incredibly adventurous and beautifully presented (both aurally and visually) recordings of entirely new repertoire I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing in the last five or so years of writing this blog.

First a little about this recording I’ve been privileged enough to review for you, dear readers…

On June 24 2016 acclaimed guitarist and teacher Ben Verdrey released his newest album,  The Ben Verdery Guitar Project: On Vineyard Sound, via Elm City Records. Ben Verdery needs little introduction (I should hope!), as one of the preeminent guitarists of our time. For those new to the classical guitar scene, or those wanting to see the latest on what Ben has been up to, I recommend heading over to his fantastic website: http://www.benjaminverdery.com

The album features Verdery performing music by his composer colleagues at Yale University’s School of Music, where he is Associate Professor of Guitar and Artistic Director of the biennial Yale Guitar Extravaganza. These featured composers include Martin Bresnick, Aaron Jay Kernis, Ezra Laderman, David Lang, Hannah Lash, Christopher Theofanidis, Jack Vees, and Verdery himself. In addition, the album features guest performers Rie Schmidt on flute and Vees on pedal steel guitar. As with his widely praised past discography, On Vineyard Sound showcases Verdery performing on a variety of guitars, ranging from Fender Stratocaster and steel string to baritone and classical.

On Vineyard Sound began with Verdery inviting his composer colleagues from the Yale School of Music to write audition pieces with relatively few interpretative indications. Verdery would then ask each prospective student to learn one of these unfamiliar compositions, which are designed to challenge and engage the musical imagination. Verdery’s project, inspired by the Rhode Island School of Design’s entrance exam for prospective students to interpret a request to draw something that involved a bicycle, has brought together the Yale compositional community in producing a new body of guitar music. Taken as a whole, the album reflects the extraordinary depth of musical talent in the community of composers at Yale, with influences ranging from indie-rock band The Nationals to English Renaissance composer John Dowland.

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The full track list looks like this:

1.  Joaquin Is Dreaming: Joaquin Imagines A Part Of His History (Martin Bresnick)

2.  Joaquin Is Dreaming: Joaquin Foresees A Future (Martin Bresnick)

3.  Joaquin Is Dreaming: Joaquin Is Sleeping, Joaquin is Dreaming (Martin Bresnick)

4.  On Vineyard Sound: With Rhythmic Drive and Compulsion (Ezra Laderman)

5.  On Vineyard Sound: Andantino (Ezra Laderman)

6.  On Vineyard Sound: Brusque, Strident (Ezra Laderman)

7.  On Vineyard Sound: With Rhythmic Drive and Propulsion – Coda (Ezra Laderman)

8.  Lullaby (Aaron Jay Kernis) *

9.  For Ben: Movement Number One (Hannah Lash)

10. For Ben: Play These Notes (Hannah Lash)

11. For Ben: This Dances Slowly (Hannah Lash)

12. January Echoes (Christopher Theofanidis)

13. The Mentioning Of Love (Ingram Marshall) *

14. En Ti Los Ríos Cantan (Ben Verdery)

15. little eye (David Lang) **

16. National Anthem (Jack Vees)

*   with flutist Rie Schmidt

Nicole’s Verdict on On Vineyard Sound

Well, let me start with the packaging and presentation of this wonderfully bold recording. I am incredibly honoured by being sent one of only 300 hard copies of this recording (so good job I seriously enjoyed it otherwise that would have been awkward huh?!). The packaging is beautifully designed in terms of its construction and its layout, text and decoration. A stunning visual invitation inside…..

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First up, I applaud Ben in undertaking this project – the more artists we have pushing the envelope in terms of classical guitar repertoire in this way the stronger it makes our instrument and legacy that we’re building for future generations of players, musicians and lovers of the form.

This album is as varied in its styles as it as stunningly presented. And I don’t just mean the packaging when I talk of its presentation. Verdery’s playing is really second to none and a beautifully direct and clear style that is unmistakably his. To compare him to any other guitarist would just be plain rude! Crystal clear, beautiful straightforward playing, with an approach that seeks every colour, every tonal nook and cranny from his instruments in just the right spots.

Given the stylistic variation and the uniqueness of each of the pieces it’s difficult to pick just one favourite. They’re all accomplished works, presented by an accomplished guitarist – some are immediate in their impact, some are pieces that take a while and a few listens perhaps for you (well, for me anyway) to “get them”. And I don’t mind non-immediacy at all when I’m coming to new music. I want something to be a bit of a surprise in where it’s going, and what it’s saying, and for me to ponder on it, and listen on repeat. Or put away and come back to and hear something else going on. That’s a sign of an interesting piece of music with longevity, to me, and the sign of a highly skilled musician in presenting the music thus.

In terms of the stand out pieces on this album that really captured my attention, I’d say there’s a good handful here.

Joaquin is Sleeping, Joaquin is Dreaming is a delightfully elegant offering, in which Verdery conveys something akin to some kind of wistful, far off distant feeling in a dream somewhere. Gossamer stuff.

Check this one out for yourself:

Then, the slightly lulling Little Eye, a wistful, dream-like piece, but set against an interesting backdrop of pedal steel guitar notes dropped in and an interesting metallic, sliding sound. A beautifully hynoptic and mesmerising piece.

It’s in the slightly left of centre pieces, however, that I feel Verdery really comes into his own, really excels and really seems to revel in the newness and the excitement of these works. And believe me they are exciting!

Play These Notes  from For Ben, a nutty little piece, on distorted jazz guitar, actually made me chuckle. I’m not sure if that was the intention or not, but as a piece of music it tickled me!

I love, love, loved the Brusque, Strident movement from On Vineyard Sound – strident is certainly a really good word to capture the essence of this piece and Verdery conveys that expertly with bold, brash (meaning that in a good way in keeping with the nature of the piece!), vibrant playing that just feels so alive!

And also bristling with this intense energy is the final movement of On Vineyard SoundWith Rhythmic Drive and Propulsion/ Coda. Oh my goodness. Exciting stuff!

If you’re into checking out the latest, leading edge guitar music then this is the recording for you. A bold, adventurous tour de force of a recording that will leave you breathless.

To view videos, composer bios, credits, photos and digital downloads to get your own copy of this marvellous recording head to: http://www.elmcityrecords.com/ben-verdery-guitar-project

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Approaching Different Versions of a Piece on Your Learning Journey

I was having an email conversation recently with a reader on a topic that I thought may be of interest and potentially helpful to others, so I thought I’d share the crux of it with you today.

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Said reader was interested to know my thoughts on two differing transcriptions for guitar of Granados’ repertoire favourite, La Maja de Goya, having read my post from nearly three years ago (eek- time flies!) on the piece. My preference, really only for the simplest reason that I’ve not tried any other transcriptions, is for the Miguel Llobet transcription. A tried, tested, and beautiful sounding transcription (with a few of my own little editorial tweaks and changes here and there, of course!), that a number of the “greats” of the guitar world are known to have used (not that that should always necessarily be a primary guiding principle).

The Llobet version drops the tuning of the bass E and A strings down to D and G respectively, and is written in the key of E Flat. The drop D tuning most guitarists are probably relatively comfortable with, being a relatively common occurrence in the guitar repertoire. The drop G running on the A string is somewhat less common and therefore can present a bit of an initial brain-teaser to the uninitiated. It’s well worth persevering with this (and other alternate tunings in other pieces) as some quite beautifully resonant sounds can result.

So, said reader was looking at this E Flat transcription versus a G transcription and wondering which to focus on, claiming that they didn’t want a dumbed down version, but apparently lacking in “great facility” (to quote them verbatim).

My response to this was that in deciding which of the two tunings to go with, go with your preference and the one that suits your ear and technique. As I eluded to above, just because Segovia or one or other of the “greats” played a particular transcription does not mean we should not explore other versions, other tunings and other approaches.

A lot of the Spanish repertoire represents transcriptions from the original piano music, so I don’t see that we need necessarily get too hung up on things like that. The differing keys obviously have their own particular qualities, so whilst you might not get the same “flavour” as the E Flat version in the G version, something in there that speaks differently may perhaps be found.
And if a particular version or transcription is slightly more accessible for someone in their progression on the guitar, then I’m all for that too. Given that a piece such as La Maja de Goya could be considered a reasonably challenging piece or in an advanced part of the repertoire attempting to play such works before you’re technically or indeed musically ready for such a piece can lead to being driven nuts, disaffection with the instrument an injury or combination of all three! If an alternate transcription allows you to enjoy a fantastic piece of music more readily then I say go for it.  You can always come to more challenging versions at a later point in time when your technique has progressed.