Can you actually use the word "shazam" in a review? Because that's what Aftermath was thinking at one juncture Tuesday night while watching John Gibbons and Eliot Fisk perform adapted Baroque pieces for the harpsichord and classical guitar. And yes, we did just say harpsichord.
The concert was held in the main entrance gallery of the Menil Collection, as part of Houston-based Da Camera's "The Romantic Spirit" 2009-2010 season. The setting, which was designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano was a perfect aesthetic complement to the works of Bach, Vivaldi, Albeniz and others which flowed over the audience.
The duo, Gibbons on harpsichord and Fisk on guitar, were stationed in front of Walter De Maria's vast yellow canvas, "The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth," and played an unamplified set to a full room of around 250 patrons. Some were there as Da Camera loyalists, some to experience the novelty of an unusual instrument, and some to pay homage to Fisk, who was the last direct pupil of Andres Segovia, the undisputed master of Spanish classical guitar who is to that genre what Rudolf Nureyev is to ballet.
The show was structured to showcase the musicians both together and apart, alternating between accompanied and solo playing by each of the artists. When they played together, the harpsichord's precision and meticulousness anchored the flights of the guitar, creating a yin and yang of sorts between the cool and the warm, the cerebral and the passionate. But when Fisk played a short Spanish set featuring works by Barrios and Albeniz followed by a closing Corelli piece by the duo, the evening truly soared.
Fisk's ability to generate the sound of multiple guitars from his one instrument, laying down a foundational bass sound while layering over it movements in the higher register and punctuating it all with perfectly timed harmonics was tremendous. He provided a head-to-toe massage as he ran up and down the neck of his guitar and transported the audience to another place and time.
Throughout the room he elicited a shared sense of reverie with a majority of the listeners rapt with eyes closed swaying gently back and forth. He was then rejoined by Gibbons, and together they gently navigated the audience back down to Earth, finding a groove between the two instruments alternating between fast-paced collaborations and slower showcasing moments.
This is beyond a doubt the music of virtuosity, meant to be experienced in live and intimate settings, with nuances of composition and sound to which digital reduction does a grave disservice. The nature of the performance is not showmanship but the creation of a shared experience through the music, so there is little audience/musician interaction and none is expected.
This, interestingly enough, turns out to be profoundly liberating. In the absence of visual spectacle (apart from watching those amazing hands), you are encouraged to close your eyes, drink it in and just listen.
By the time we were ushered out into the night, it was with a fuller heart and with gratitude for musicians and shows such as these.