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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Album Review: Serene Nights by Guitar Trek

It has to be said that I’m a very lucky bunny indeed – another fantastic classical guitar album to review (and yes it was fantastic – and just as an aside, I only tend to post up reviews if I really like a recording as I like to keep things positive on here and prefer to expend my efforts in telling you about the stuff that floats my boat and I think is worth a listen).

And this recording, Serene Nights, the sixth by Australian guitar family quartet Guitar Trek (guitar family being a bass, baritone, standard, and treble). The quartet, comprised of Timothy Kain, Minh Le Hoang, Matt Withers and Bradley Kunda, have produced what is a really refreshing recording.

Guitar Trek
Guitar Trek

And when I say refreshing I mean music that you perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily connect with the classical guitar or perhaps even have imagined it on the instrument previously. For example, we’re treated to a couple of excellent Johannes Brahms transcriptions (Intermezzo, Op.118 No. 2 (arranged by Bradley Kunda) and the Horn Trio in E Flat Major Op.40: IV – Allegro con Brio)- not a composer I’d usually connect with the guitar at all, but a great composer and both of these pieces certainly work very well with the guitar family. Brilliant stuff (and goes without saying almost expertly played by the four guitarists).

The album title Serene Nights, out now on the ABC Classics label, is a pretty accurate one, for whilst there are some lively pieces on here (including impressively lively album opener Llanura by Alfonso Montes) the abiding sensation, for me, delivered by this recording is one of poise and grace.

Llanura delivers us a “hello we’re here!”, before settling us into Kunda’s delightful arrangement of Brahms’ Intermezzo, which sounds just perfect on guitar family – delicate, graceful, lush, full of rich colour, serene.

Being a bit of a ballet fan, I have to say that my personal favourite on the recording is the an Andrew York arrangement of Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. A cracking arrangement, and expertly played, full of joie de vivre, fluid and nuanced. The colours and dynamics that the quartet bring out in the piece demonstrate the versatility of the instrument family, and the masterful command of the instruments that these four players have. We rarely hear Tchaikovsky on guitar and this recording goes to show it can work really well indeed.

This is followed a wonderfully sultry rendition of Albeniz’s Tango (Op. 165 , No. 2), as arranged by Timothy Kain, brining the mood back into serene territory again following the lively excitement of the Tchaikovsky. Very lullaby-esque. Beautiful arrangement, beautiful playing.

For the romantics amongst you you might want to check out the Alfonsina e el mar (Ariel Ramirez, arr. Roland Dyens) – achingly beautiful melody, supported by some big, fat rich sound. The baritone guitar really plays a great part in this piece, demonstrating how the guitar family can bring an important dimension that a straight-up guitar quartet can’t quite manage.

Then for a bit of a change of pace with latin flavour and colour (with a steel strung guitar thrown into the mix) we’re presented with Noite Serena (Bau (Rafino Almeida)) followed by a Timothy Kain arrangement of Nola for a little bit a whimsical touch. We then head into Mark Issac’s Angel and a Kain arrangement of Satie’s Je Te Veux, both of which have a lovely, easy relaxed vibe to them.

My second favourite offering on the recording are all four of the Four Pieces for Piano by Rodrigo (arr. Timothy Kain), proving yet again the piano to guitar leap works very well indeed. My particular favourite of the four is the third movement (Plegaria de la Infanta de Castilla). Once again the richness that the baritone brings to the piece is particularly noteworthy.

The recording is closed out by a Jeremy Sparks arrangement of Joplin’s Solace. A lovely, and most definitely serene, closing to a fine recording.

Serene Nights is a high-class affair – high calibre playing with some top notch “in house” arrangements of some wonderful pieces of music that sit very well on the guitar family (testament to talented, sensitive and balanced arranging skills). An expertly played and wonderfully colourful exploration.

Serene Nights is available to buy now at all good record stores, including ABC stores and the usual online outlets.

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Serene Nights – a recording worth celebrating!