Galbraith Plays The Brahms

Scottish-born guitarist Paul Galbraith introduced a Jamestown audience to a new vision of an old favorite instrument, along with some wonderful musical sounds, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Friday evening.

The concert was part of the regular concert season of the Jamestown Concert Assn.

Galbraith performs on what he calls ”An eight-string Brahms Guitar.” That is a normal six-string guitar, to which one lower string and one upper string have been added. Somewhat like a cello, the instrument is played nearly upright with only a slightly backward tilt balanced on a spike, which rests on an acoustic box. Naturally, no bow is used.

The name comes from the fact that Galbraith wished to perform a transcription of a set of Brahms variations, but found he needed to contort and stretch his left hand in order to perform all the required notes. He determined if he had more strings he could play all the sounds with less reaching in the left hand.

The result is a buttery, smooth sound, vastly more legato than a traditional guitar. I kept getting a visual picture of water, flowing over an uneven surface. The plucking and strumming which are so typical of guitar performances were muted to the point that they sometimes seemed nearly undetectable to the ear.

Galbraith’s program was divided into three segments. He began with a suite for lute, by J.S. Bach – ”No. 3 in G Minor, transposed to A Minor,” BWV 995. The suite begins with a leisurely prelude, then moves on to six unique dance styles, which sounded reborn on the new instrument.

The artist then played his second segment as an exercise in contrasts. It began with almost mechanical, 12-tone variations by composer Anton Webern, then moved on to a Romantic, musical tour of Spain, with a prelude and five variations, aptly called ”Espana,” by Isaac Albeniz.

Following intermission, Galbraith returned to perform ”Prelude and 20 Variations with Fugue on ‘La Folia de Espana,” by Mexican composer Manuel Ponce. In his gently accented English, Galbraith explained that famed guitarist Andres Segovia had met Ponce and had requested the composer to send him variations on a theme, which he could perform in concert.

In reply, Ponce began mailing the guitarist one variation at a time, until he had reached 30, whereupon the guitarist had encouraged the composer to stop, as the music had begun to exceed a workable length for a concert. Segovia edited the 30 variations down to 20, and eventually to 10. Galbraith told his audience that the original compositions of Ponce have been lost, but there is some explanation of their nature, and he has tried to re-create some of Ponce’s original intentions.

The result was quite elegant. The technique seemed flawless, and the sound, with the added strings, was richer and more complete. In all, the evening was an education in musical styling, as well as a poignant and moving evening of artistry.

The next concert sponsored by the Jamestown Concert Assn. will be on April 18, at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, when Symphony Syracuse returns to Jamestown for an all-classical concert of music featuring cellist Julian Schwarz.