There are certain phrases that strike fear into the hearts of classical music lovers when they are uttered from the stage. They include “this is a new work,” and “although we have not had time to rehearse this piece.”
And perhaps the most chilling of all is “this piece was written for me.” What happens next is rarely something you want to hear again.
But guitarist David Russell proved that such an introduction is not always a death sentence for an audience in his performance at the Kimbell Art Museum’s Piano Pavilion on Thursday. “Landmarks,” a three-movement work by San Antonio-based composer Matthew Dunne, was one of the real standouts in an excellent program of works by some of the greats of the classical guitar repertoire.
Dunne’s piece, which Russell just debuted in February, opened with “Camilliola,” a gentle and atmospheric movement with just a hint of modernism. The following “Cancion” was a near lullaby in the Spanish style that nicely lived up to its name. And utterly charming was the closing “Reel Variations.” Although he grew up on the Spanish island of Minorca, Russell is a native Scot. So Dunne composed the movement with Scottish dances in mind. It was a kilt-clad delight from start to finish, and put an exclamation point on its proud prancing with a fast and flashy ending. If Russell is looking for a signature work, Dunne has given him an excellent candidate with this 16-minute composition.
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The only work on the program that rivaled Dunne’s piece for entertainment value was the closing piece on the bill, “Gran Jota” by Spanish composer Francisco Tarrega. This work is usually trotted out by only the best (and bravest) of classical guitarists. It is a compendium of showy guitar skills and tricks that includes finger-spraining work on the fret board, precise harmonics, droning tremolo and even some percussion work that turns the guitar into a snare drum. It is always a fun piece, and its roiling waters were superbly navigated by Russell.
In addition to scintillating playing, the concert, which closed the Fort Worth Classic Guitar Society’s 2016-17 season, offered plenty of geographical and temporal variety. Another crowd pleaser was a set of waltzes by late-19th-early-20th century Spanish composer Enrique Granados. And the Baroque era was well represented with two partitas by German composer Johann Kuhnau (a contemporary of Bach) and two sonatas by Italian keyboard master Domenico Scarlatti. For an encore, Russell offered a lovely reading of the haunting “Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios,” by Paraguayan composer Agustin Barrios.
Between numbers, Russell displayed an unpretentious personality and created a welcoming environment with his comments to the audience. It was an exceptionally satisfying evening of guitar music by one of the most respected players currently on the circuit.