Some changes in classical music during my almost fifty years as a devoted listener and chronicler are so striking that even I couldn’t fail to notice them. High on that list would be the rise of the classical guitar, from what was once an interesting fringe populated by a few capable performers (Segovia, Bream, Williams, et al.), to what is now a bustling center of diverse creativity and high-quality production. Put another way, there are more guitarists who play with more skill and more worthwhile guitar repertoire from all over the world than could have been imagined a generation ago.
A taste for the classical guitar seems to be a generational thing, if my experience is any guide. During my radio years, a slow but steady drip of anti-guitar complaints, almost always from well-aged listeners, never let me forget that there was a time, not all that long ago, that the guitar wasn’t taken seriously as a classical instrument. So what changed? Basically, popular music changed, and elevated the guitar to the central position of American musical culture formerly occupied by the piano. So, more guitars were in the hands of more guitarists, some small but significant percentage of whom gravitated to classical music.
And many of those classical guitarists never broke away from their popular roots. Hence, we have a modern classical guitar repertoire that remains much closer to the folk and popular vernacular, wherever that vernacular my be from, than is the norm for classical composition. We also have myriad guitarists tinkering with the instrument itself, each coming up with his/her own unique design. By now, Valley music fans are no doubt familiar with Michael Nix and his banjo-guitar hybrid, the banjar, and with Peter Blanchette and his self-designed 11-string “Rock Steady” archguitar.
Well, as if we didn’t have enough weird classical “guitars” around here, now we have a pair of classical guitar-slingers who show up at their gigs with an instrumentarium that includes vintage Fender and Gibson electrics, with well-worn old tube amps to match. Yikes! An aural onslaught?
Au contraire, mes amis. The members of Duo Orfeo — Jamie Balmer (above left) and Joseph Ricker (right) — plug in to chill out. As we have known since Bing Crosby’s microphone replaced Al Jolson’s megaphone some 80 years ago, amplification permits not just greater volume, but also greater intimacy. One doesn’t have to shout all the time when, with an electronic boost, one can whisper. In this spirit, Jamie and Joe specialize in the quieter side of the classical repertoire, crafting delicate arrangements of masterworks drawn from many centuries of composition to “(bring) to life a world of sound that is intimate, charming, subtle and haunting.”
Next up for Duo Orfeo is a concert called “Soli Deo Gloria” (“To the Glory of God Alone,” an inscription on many of J.S. Bach’s manuscripts) this Sunday afternoon at Hartford’s Trinity Episcopal Church. It’s not your basic program of guitar favorites, including as it does arrangements of works by Guillaume de Machaut, William Byrd, J.S Bach, Gabriel Fauré, Frédéric Chopin, and Arvo Pärt, along with new things composed for them by Thomas Shuttenhelm and Joe Ricker. Having heard Duo Orfeo on a couple of occasions, I can assure you that their music is indeed “intimate, charming, subtle and haunting” — to which I may add mesmerizing, musically rewarding, and definitely worth 90 minutes of your Sunday afternoon.