Tuesday, March 24, 2009

John Williams--Telling Stories on Guitar

John Williams performed at McCarter Theatre last night. Not the John T. Williams of movie score fame but the John C. Williams of classical guitar fame. I know him mostly through his phenomenal recordings of the music of Paraguayan composer Barrios.

The house was packed, the stage nearly empty but for a chair and two mics. Seems like the fewer people in the band, the more people in the audience. Perhaps people think that large bands don't need as much company. Williams walked out, gave a quick bow and smile, and set about weaving delicate fabrics of sound, making it look deceptively easy as he coaxed all manner of tone qualities out of the instrument. "He tells stories!", my companion declared at intermission, in awe at what an acoustic guitar could evoke.

As he re-tuned his guitar inbetween tunes, Williams gave descriptions of the compositions in an understated, humorous way that I'll guess goes back to his Australian roots.

I would have been more transported by the finely wrought tapestries and tales if not for the percussive accompaniment provided by the audience. It's been a cold spring in Princeton, and Mr. Tickle was getting mischievous with quite a few throats. Williams made a good humored request for more self-control after his first tune, with good results, but the Tickle Monster had a reprise in key sections of Williams' heartfelt performance of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe's "Djilile" in the second half, bringing winces from the master, and a diplomatic but firm request for silence that tamed the monster for the rest of the program.

Memories were triggered of classical performances at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, years back, repeatedly sabataged by deep winter communal hacking, until finally copious supplies of cough drops became a standard presence in the lobby. (Four flavors! Try them all!) A small basket of them was out in the lobby at McCarter, but I wish there had been a seventh string Williams could have plucked that would have blanketed the audience with medicinal magic.

A more common problem with musical performances (not at McCarter fortunately) is that the musicians are overamplified and the audience lacks not cough drops but earplugs. Even with the coughs occasionally shattering the miraculous fabric of sound, I was glad for the kind of music that draws you in rather than bowls you over, and the chance to see a master of the artform at work.

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