Robert Gruca CICGF Classical Guitar Recital: Sunday, June 1, 2014 at 2:45pm, Cleveland Institute of Music

English lutenist Robert Johnson (c. 1583–1633) isn’t well known today. Indeed, he’s easily confused with the 20th century blues guitarist of the same name. But in his day he was highly successful, serving as court musician to both English monarchs James I and Charles I. He also had the theater in his blood, for he was active as a composer for the King’s Men, a theatrical group who produced the plays of, among others, Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare. So much of his music for Shakespeare plays survives that nowadays he’s sometimes dubbed “Shakespeare’s lutenist.”

As difficult as he was talented, the English lutenist and singer John Dowland (1563-1626) comes down to us as a man at odds with himself. His skill as a performer and composer kept him employed throughout his life. His penchant for running up debts and irritating people in high places ensured his employment was neither as long nor as lucrative as his skill would merit. He also had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Italy he stumbled onto a treasonous plot against the English crown, and wrote a panicky letter to Sir Robert Cecil, the English secretary of State, to insist he wasn’t involved in the plot. Though by all accounts loyal to Queen Elizabeth, his loyalty wasn’t reciprocated—Elizabeth called him an “obstinate Papist.” Dowland’s delightful Frog Galliard is an instrumental arrangement of his song Now I Needs Must Part. How this galliard got its curious title is unclear. Some think it refers to the hopping contour of the melody. Others think it refers to Duc d’Alençon, a homely and charmless suitor to Elizabeth whom she nicknamed her “frog.”

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was the towering musical presence of his day. But he got off to a bad start, being born to a father who disliked music and insisted his son study law. An early biographer reported that the young Handel had a clavichord secretly stashed in the attic—perhaps with the help of his sympathetic mother—where he would practice late at night out of the earshot of his disapproving father. Free to wholeheartedly pursue music after his father’s death, Handel happily abandoned law and skyrocketed to fame. One can argue that he was an early example of the successful free-lance musician. Although continuously employed throughout his working life, Handel was quick to leave a post if something better came along. He was also a shrewd businessman and investor. For example, while many were ruined by the infamous “South Sea Bubble” financial scandal of 1720, Handel made a tidy sum by buying low and selling high before the scandal burst. He ended his life as an English citizen, wealthy and widely acknowledged as the greatest composer of his day. As a keyboard composer, Handel’s work is overshadowed by his vast and seminal output in opera, oratorios, and cantatas. He was, however, a virtuoso performer on the harpsichord and organ. Many of his keyboard works circulated throughout Europe in corrupt editions. An annoyed Handel responded in 1720 with his own edition of eight harpsichord suites, writing in the attached explanation: “I have been obliged to publish some of the following Lessons, because surreptitious and incorrect Copies of them had got Abroad.”

At the outset of his career, Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944) believed he couldn’t make a living with the guitar. He tried other jobs, among them bank scribe, newspaper reporter, and the Paraguayan Navy. But he always returned to the guitar. Some of his publicity stunts—late in his career he performed dressed in native Guaraní garb—polarized opinion of his artistry. A 1933 Guatemalan newspaper review opined that “he is on marihuana.” That same review, however, warmed to Barrios as he played: “There is nothing this man can’t do on the guitar. At times it seems the guitar plays itself.” Perhaps a greater misfortune was that Barrios lived at the same time as Andrés Segovia, who overshadowed every other guitarist of the time. Certainly it didn’t help that Segovia himself, sensing a worthy rival, was wary of Barrios. Yet he recognized his talent, saying of him “Barrios was a man who tried to destroy himself, but couldn’t because he was such a genius.” Segovia also astutely singled out for praise what has become the best known work of Barrios: “At my invitation Barrios visited me at the hotel and played for me upon my very own guitar several of his compositions. Among the ones that really impressed me was a magnificent concert piece, La Catedral, whose first movement is an andante, like an introduction and prelude, and a second very virtuosic piece which is ideal for the repertory of any concert guitarist.”

Throughout his long life, Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) was closely associated with the guitar, composing six guitar concertos, six sets of songs for guitar and voice, and over twenty separate works for solo guitar. Surprisingly, however, he didn’t play the guitar, and this could be a problem. Some of what he wrote was unplayable, and thus guitarists had to resolve these difficulties for themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Invocación y danza. Rodrigo had begun it not long after his wildly successful Concierto de Aranjuez, but had set it aside. Then in 1961 he was asked to submit a guitar work for a competition sponsored by the Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française. Rodrigo completed the work, and gave a hand-written piano score to the Venezuelan guitarist Alirio Díaz. Finding parts of it awkward on the guitar, Díaz prepared his own version and premiered it in 1962. Since then there have been three published editions, each different from one another. Not surprisingly, this creates confusion over what is the definitive edition of this work. So for guitarists today, performing Invocación y danza is something of a forensic undertaking. The quality of the work, however, makes it worth the effort. It’s a darkly meditative lament in memory of the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla. Those familiar with Falla’s music will recognize quotes from his Noches en los jardines de España and El amor brujo.

Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer (b. 1939) is an eclectic experimentalist—a quick internet search turns up a photo of him holding the guitar like a cello and playing it with a bow. Nonetheless, over time he became a perceptive critic of modern music excesses. “The avant-garde lacked the relaxation of all tensions. There is no living entity that doesn’t rest. This was one of the things I discovered in my self-taught analysis. In this way, I made a kind of regression that moves toward the simplification of compositional materials. That is what I consider my last period, which I call ‘new simplicity.’ This new simplicity encompasses the essential elements from popular music, from classical music and from the avant-garde itself. They help me to give contrast to big tensions.” A prime example is Brouwer’s popular El Decameron Negro. Composed for and premiered by Sharon Isbin, this three movement work fuses a simplicity of musical language with an epic, almost cinematic expansiveness. Loosely programmatic, the music is based on a collection of African folk tales compiled by the German anthropologist Leon Frobenius.

Jorge Morel (b. 1931) is the son of the noted Argentine actor Domingo Scibona, who encouraged both his son’s musical interests and bonhomie. Summing up his life philosophy, Morel declared that “one should love his friends and family, drink good wine, and play good music. These are the keys to a long and happy life.” After his studies in Argentina, Morel followed his love of jazz to New York City. There he earned his keep as a night club musician, performing with Erroll Garner, Stan Kenton, Herbie Mann, and Chet Atkins. Morel’s Sonatina, composed for David Russell, stands apart from his normal output. “The Sonatina was a departure from my style—a little bit more classical, I would say. But still has a little bit of that Latin-American feeling there. I can’t get rid of it. I don’t want to get rid of it!


About the Author: With over 30 years teaching experience, Tom Poore has taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts Community Music Center and the Cleveland Institute of Music Preparatory Department. His background in teaching children includes Suzuki training, outreach programs through the Broadway School of Music and Passport Program, and the Cleveland Public Schools Arts in Summer Education Program. Tom and his students have performed for WCPN radio and WVIZ television. Former students of his have gone on to earn scholarships and degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, The Juilliard School of Music, and others. Tom earned his bachelor’s degree at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied with Aaron Shearer, and master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied with John Holmquist. He was also the editor for Aaron Shearer’s three volume “Learning the Classic Guitar,” published by Mel Bay. Currently he teaches in the greater Cleveland area at the Solon Center for the Arts, Western Reserve School of Music, Avon School of Music, and from his home in South Euclid.