Review: Ancestors of the Guitar

By Lorin Wilkerson

In a concert entitled ‘The Ancestors of the Guitar,” Portland lutenist/guitarist Hideki Yamaya presented an insightful look into three early instruments on Friday night, January 29th at the Little Church in NE Portland. Despite a delayed start as the artist waited for latecomers (there was a mistake in The Oregonian directing listeners to the Old Church downtown), the small hall was nearly full as Yamaya played several sets, first on the vihuela, then on a Renaissance lute, and finally a Baroque guitar. Throughout the performance Yamaya put the intimate setting to good use, taking time to set the works in their historical and social contexts, frequently interpolating vignettes on the evolution of the guitar and other plucked string instruments.

He opened on the vihuela, a Spanish instrument very similar to the guitar that by and large took the place of the lute in Iberian culture, which Yamaya explained was due to the fact that the lute was a direct descendant of the Arabic oud that reminded them of their Moorish enemies of the not-too-distant past. The vihuela set was entirely by very little-known Spanish composers. Yamaya opened with three Fantasias from around 1536 by Luis de Milán, the first pensive and spontaneous, the second more exuberant and the third feeling like a dance. Luis de Narváez’s entabulation of a vocal work by Josquin des Prez was tricky and satisfying, an interesting exposition of non-Spanish music in a uniquely Spanish idiom, a work with a self-accompanied feel that seemed to anticipate the upcoming stile recitativo. There was a sort of balade by Miguel de Fuenllana that dealt directly in subject matter with Moorish characters, whose influence left such a distinct, exotic stamp on the music of Iberia. The gentle sonority of the vihuela allowed Yamaya’s clear articulation to shine through.

For the second set Yamaya turned to a seven-course Renaissance lute. He played a set by John Dowland, perhaps the only well-known composer of the evening. Yamaya’s clean voicing allowed the contrapuntal outworking of certain themes to be clearly heard in the Fancy. He opened the second half with French lute compositions, the most striking of which was a Branles de village by Robert Ballard whose almost incessant two-note ostinato provided a framework for a beautiful, lively melody whose tricky fingering seemed to pose little problem.

On the five-course guitar, Yamaya moved forward to compositions from the middle and high Baroque in a virtuosic prelude by the only Italian of the evening, Angelo Michele Bartolotti. On this somewhat jangly precursor to the modern guitar Yamaya hit rough patches on one or two pieces, but soon found his footing for perhaps the most interesting and unusual works of the evening by the Spaniard Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739), whose ‘declaration of poverty’ (a precursor to bankruptcy?) provided a good long laugh as Yamaya compared it to the plight of a modern guitarist.

The manuscript for this work was found in Mexico, which has led some scholars to speculate that de Murcia may have traveled there, though Yamaya found this proposition unlikely as he was employed by the court in Spain. The Cumbees was a fascinating dance of New World origin that sounded centuries ahead of its time at points; it had a very modern, folksy feel, accompanied by a syncopated slapping, and the work ended suddenly, a chord that seemed in need of resolution hanging wistfully out in the middle of nowhere. The final number was a Tarantela that was downright exciting. Yamaya employed a rasping roulade of the right-hand fingernails across the strings when strumming chords, a technique reminiscent of the rasquedo of flamenco guitar.

The evening was punctuated by Yamaya’s often drily humorous observations. This, coupled with impassioned scholasticism and an intense, sensitive musical performance, yielded a delightful concert of the type that early music afficionados love: very informative and chock-full of good music; sort of like a live version of a History Channel program about music. He will reprise this performance tonight (January 30th) in Bend, OR at The Beckman House at 7 pm.

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