Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shades of Picasso and Dracula

How different can two Sunday afternoon guitar performances be? Let me tell you.

The first, at VMFA was called "Shades of Picasso" and featured the Richmond Guitar Quartet with Adam Larrabee (thereby making them a quintet, but let's not quibble). Larrabee brought banjo and mandolin in addition to his excellent guitar work to the group. And, yes, I had just seen him at JazzFest last night.

Starting with a couple of Spanish dances, the group then moved on to French composers who used Spanish folk music influences in their work. After a detailed musical explanation of what the composers had done, the quartet's speaker said, "What that means in English is that this will be more free form." Ohhh...

Introducing the section called "Cell manipulation," we were told that the Stravinsky (Picasso's roommate for a few years) and Ravel pieces were chosen because they represented cell division of a theme. "If that makes any sense and if it doesn't, it's just modern. Check it out."

The group ended they way they'd begun, revisiting folk music beginning with a rag from the ballet "Parade," which was where Picasso had met his  first wife Olga.

The second piece was a nod to Picasso's feelings that classical music was not his thing; they played Chick Corea's 1971 "Spain," which made for a very cool ending.

The performance was nearly full and the only way it could have been better would have been if the screen behind the musicians had shown Picasso's art during the music.

Instead, it listed the name of the performance, the group and the location, information everyone in the room already had. Using his art would have been the perfect touch during music so carefully chosen to represent the master. Not that anyone's asking me, I know.

From the VMFA crowd to the Byrd crowd, my second guitar pleasure was jazz guitarist Gary Lucas accompanying the Spanish-language version of "Dracula" as yet another installment of the James River Film Fest. No, I can't get enough.

Lucas, who worked with Leonard Bernstein and the Captain Beefheart Band, had scored the film for the Havana Film Fest in 2009 and had just performed it to open the South by Southwest festival last month. There was no way I was missing this (or the Byrd's greasy popcorn).

This version of Dracula was filmed on the same sets as the Bela Lugosi version, except at night, and with Spanish actors. Made in 1931 during the Depression, there was no budget for a composer, so except for the opening and closing, Lucas had free rein of the film to score.

When the film began, he took a seat onstage with his back to us and his eye on the screen. He used two guitars and a fair amount of effects to create an amazing soundscape around the dialog (which was subtitled in English).

My favorite subtitle was also the simplest: (Scoffs). It showed up twice, to my great delight.

The movie makers had the benefit of seeing the daily rushes from the Lugosi version and it helped them to make what many critics considered a better movie, less static, less stage play-like and better edited. I wouldn't know since I've never seen the original. Shameful, isn't it?

Afterwards Lucas spoke of having watched the film around fifty times before attempting to write music for it. Even so, he said he still improvises 50% of it every time he performs it, making each show different.

He said the energy of the crowd (we got a "good") and the place in which he's playing both have an effect on the music he improvises.

 "I'm just trying to keep all the balls in the air," he explained in his gravelly voice..

Next time somebody asks me how I manage the life I do, that's exactly what I'm saying. It just won't have the same impact without the gravelly voice.


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