PSU’s baroque pearl

Contemporary classical guitar music mainly exists at the intersection of three musical traditions: Baroque lute music, Spanish guitar music, and the contemporary tradition which fuses modernist classical trends with diverse musical idioms from around the world. On Thursday, May 3, Portland State’s weekly Noon Concert Series showcased Guitar Area students playing a good balance of all three.

The concert was a well-crafted crescendo, expanding from three solos to two duets to a pair of very different compositions played by the PSU Guitar Orchestra. Brandon Azbill opened the show with the wistful “Mazurka” from Marek Pasieczny’s Hommage à Tansman suite. Pitchaya Su-authai blazed her way through the complex tremolos of Francisco Tárrega’s timeless “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” which earned a whispered, “that’s so beautiful” from an attendee. Adam Brooker closed the solos segment with “La Toccata de Pasquini,” the third movement of Cuban composer Leo Brouwer’s Sonata No. 1.

Every genre has its A-List Composers, and Pasieczny, Tárrega, and Brouwer are right up there with Agustín Barrios, Joaquín Rodrigo, Fernando Sor and Tōru Takemitsu. It was pretty awesome hearing Brooker play Brouwer’s movement live after hearing him talk the composer up so often.

The two duets brought the Baroque vibes, Su-authai and Madeline Okano pairing up for J.S. Bach’s famous “Invention No. 13 in A minor,” followed by Azbill and Brooker playing the first movement “Andante Spiccato” of Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings in D minor. The Marcello work is also a nod to Bach, who transcribed the concerto for harpsichord. It’s been popular with guitarists ever since.

The nine guitarists of the PSU Guitar Orchestra kept the Baroque theme going with the Concerto in D by Georg Philipp Telemann, transcribed from the original version for four violins. I was quite pleased to hear all four movements of the little concerto, even if they only amount to about six minutes of music altogether, because there’s something emotionally satisfying about hearing the entire arc of a multi-movement composition. The nine-guitar version sounded wonderful, all crisp and ornate and shimmery as only 54 well-played strings can be.

And then the shimmering took over completely, as the orchestra continued with a magnificent modern guitar piece, “Java by Starlight,” by former PSU School of Music Director Bryan Johanson. “Java” was reminiscent of Indonesian music, melding the five-tone mode common to Javanese and Balinese gamelan (pelog barang) with Western scales, textures and rhythms. What really excited me, though, was the paper clips used on Brooker’s guitar. “The paper clips, which were woven between the strings next to the bridge of the guitars, may have slightly affected tuning,” said Brooker. The effect sounded a lot like ngumbang-ngisep, or what I call the “Gamelan Acoustic Chorus Pedal”—an uncanny microtonal warbling produced by instruments playing in a carefully detuned near-unison which creates pulsing interference patterns.

Craig Kaufman, a graduate student working on a guitar performance degree, described in an email about how he enjoyed playing Johanson’s music. “He is such an amazing composer, and his pieces are so unique,” Kaufman said. “It’s been a great experience playing them.” As it turns out, this was Kaufman’s first public performance in seven years. “I finished my undergrad about seven years ago and just took time off,” wrote Kaufman.

First-year guitar major Madeline Okano explained the challenge of Bach’s “Invention” via email. “The melody is traded back and forth between players,” Okana wrote. “The piece is good for experimenting in color and timbre changes. The ascending and descending dynamic changes also made the piece a challenge and enjoyable to play.”

Brooker described Brouwer as “perhaps, the most well known and accomplished living composer for the classical guitar,” through post-show correspondence. “His Sonata for Guitar (1990) masterfully blends Latin and African rhythms, modern harmony, and minimalism to create a sonic signature unique to Brouwer,” Brooker said. “The third movement, ‘Toccata de Pasquini,’ humorously depicts a cuckoo clock with its constant streams of sixteenth notes interrupted by exclamatory bursts from the cuckoo bird.”

I don’t know if I heard the cuckoo bird or the clock the first time around—but I sure do now.

Three of these guitarists have recitals coming up.

Upcoming Recital Times:

Azbill 6 p.m. 5/26 in LH 326

Brooker 7 p.m. 5/27 in LH 75

Su-Authai 5:30 p.m. 6/6 in LH 75

For more information on the School of Music & Theater’s free weekly Noon Concert Series, including a complete schedule, visit