A Paul Galbraith Performance: It’s Personal

Paul Galbraith
Paul Galbraith

When the Grammy-nominated classical guitarist Paul Galbraith performs at Hope College on March 1, it will be his fourth appearance on our campus. While I’ve presented many artists to Hope over the years, no one has made four visits. Until now.

Galbraith is unique, not only in his skill on guitar, but also because he has been instrumental in moving the classical guitar world through the sometimes hard wall of what constitutes classical music. . . and that does not usually include a guitar. He surprises people with his playing ability, his interpretations of classical standards, and even his one-of-a-kind playing style.

Presenting the performing arts is part of my work at Hope. For 20 years, I have listened to countless recordings, attended performances, watched videos, and read scripts in the search for the right performers to bring to the Hope and Holland communities. So, when the performers finally reach our stage, I’m already very familiar with their work. I have an idea what to expect.

But once and awhile, someone surprises me.

I was not raised on classical music and have little formal training. Fortunately, you do not need that to enjoy and indeed be moved by a performance. I remember one of the first performers I booked here was the pianist Sergio Tiempo who performed Maurice Ravel’s  Gaspard de la nuit.” I was caught off guard by the power of each single note creating a haunting scene. One note, played quietly, sounding like a distant bell tolling to announce a death.

More recently, Trio Con Brio Copenhagen performed Bedrich Smetana’s “Trio in G minor” and it pulled hard at me. Instinctively I recognized it as a piece on grief. It was only later, when I read the trio’s program notes, did I realize that Smetana wrote the piece in response to the death of his five-year-old daughter. As a parent of a child who died far too young, Smetana’s piece reached across 200 years to grieve with me. This is what art can do.

Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach

My response has also been strong to anything written by Bach. The clean, structured pieces can be playful or thoughtful, but they are always stunningly beautiful. This “beautiful” probably resonates more strongly with me because for Bach, who has been called “The Fifth Evangelist,” that beauty comes from God. While the pieces by Ravel and Smetana address our sorrows, Bach addresses our hope. Perhaps that is why whenever I see that Bach is on the program, I know I’m going to leave the concert with a renewed faith.

My experience of this has been most strong when hearing Paul Galbraith perform Bach. He clearly loves that 17th century composer as his work appears on five of Galbraith’s eight recordings. Two of his recordings focus on Bach alone and his 1998 recording of Bach’s complete Sonatas and Partitas received a Grammy nomination, ended up in Billboard’s Top Ten classical chart, and was called a “landmark in the history of guitar recordings” by Gramophone Magazine.

While his Grammy nomination got him some attention, his development of  the 8-string guitar that he plays like a cello makes him instantly recognizable.

Better than any award, the legend of classical guitar, Andreas Segovia, heard the then 17-year-old Galbraith play and declared, “Paul is magnificent. He will be a great artist.”  Not surprising, Segovia was right. Galbraith enjoys a great solo career but was also a founding member of the highly regard Brazilian Guitar Quartet (even though he is from Scotland!). He is in demand to perform with chamber groups and orchestras and is now working with the great Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses.

Galbraith’s program at Hope is more varied this time and I have no doubt all of it will be excellent. Plus, the chance to hear him perform in the acoustically superior concert hall at the Jack H. Miller Center is too good to miss. If you have never heard a classical guitar concert, there will be no better first experience than this concert.

By the way, he opens the performance with Bach.

And, I’ll be happy.

Tickets to the Paul Galbraith concert can be purchased online, in person at the Hope College Ticket Office, or at the door on the evening of the performance. Adult tickets are $10, seniors $7, and children $5.

Before a Turtle Can Perform…

…we must prepare. Many people experienced an outstanding performance by the Turtle Island Quartet, winners of two Grammy awards and leaders in crossing the jazz and classical lines. They returned to Hope College with jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut on Nov. 9 and the Concert Hall at the Jack H. Miller Center was alive with creativity. But that 7:30 p.m. performance is actually the last part of a very busy day of preparing for the artists and the artists preparing for the performance.

9:00-11:00 a.m. Piano tuning. 

Long-time Hope piano tuner Kelly Bakker knows the instruments well and has tuned thousands of pianos, including many for the legendary artists that have crossed Hope’s stages over the years.

Jack H. Miller stage for Turtle Island
The stage is set according to the technical rider.

11:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Technical Setup.
Technical Director Erik Alberg and Asst. Technical Director David Johnson work on meeting the needs of the technical rider. Although a string quartet, the Turtle Island Quartet is wired for sound. The rider tells Erik everything from what types of chairs they require (piano benches are often favored by cellists), where the chairs should go, and how the technical equipment should be arranged. Erik makes a call on pulling out the back wall to create a sound shell and will adjust the drapes along the walls to either enliven or deaden the sound. The rider gives details, but creating the right balance is an art. Erik has been doing this for a long time with all levels of artists and he has the art part down. In the midst of all this, Drew Elliott, sound engineer for the Music Dept. hops in to make sure all the sound is connected to his software since the quartet has requested a recording of the performance.

Turtle Island Masterclass
Two members of the Grammy-award winning Turtle Island Quartet work with Hope College students.

2:30 – 3:30 p.m. Masterclass.
Before they take the stage, all of our artists connect with the community in different ways. This time, it was a masterclass with two Hope College student ensembles under the direction of faculty member Mihai Craiovneau. A music masterclass typically consists of students performing a prepared piece before an artist and then receiving feedback on their work. There is usually some give and take and the piece always sounds different by the end. Of course, leave it to the Turtles (as they often refer to themselves) to throw a wrench in the normal. Two members of quartet, including founder David Balakrishnan, listened to both a quartet and octet perform. They gave some feedback. And then they went all jazz on them having them work on a piece Balakrishnan wrote and teaching the students how to improvise. String players are not always encouraged to go off the printed page, but in this masterclass, it was a requirement. And the students were clearly enjoying the challenge. At the end, Balakrishnan dubbed them “honorary Turtles.”

“You can tell this is a strong department because the strings are strong. Usually the toughest area,” Balakrishnan commented later.

Turtle Island Soundcheck
Turtle Island Quartet and Cyrus Chestnut during soundcheck (from the Technical Director’s viewpoint)

3:30 – 5:45 p.m. Soundcheck and rehearsal.
With the masterclass done the remaining quartet members arrive with Chestnut for soundcheck and rehearsal. Without fail, our artists are always impressed with how prepared Erik and David are with their requests. As a result, they just have to fine tune the equipment hookups and then quickly get to hearing how it sounds. Again, with our technical staff skills, what could be a two hour process is done quickly, leaving the quartet and Chestnut time to simply rehearse. And they rehearse hard. Some pieces go straight through, but there is a lot of starting and stopping and repeating until they get to where they want.

5:45 – 7:00 p.m. Eat and Change.

Like most artists, the groups goes past their scheduled rehearsal time, but they leave it to find a catered meal in the Music Dept. conference room. Well-fed artists are happy artists, and they eat well. A couple change in the Green Room and others run back and change at the Haworth Inn. While they are doing that the ticket office is opening in the lobby and the ushers are getting last minute directions on what they need to do. CDs are set in the lobby and everything is in place for the doors to open. Members of the group also seek out last minute places to warm up.

7:30 p.m. The Performance.
Finally. As a presenter (my role), this is the best part of the day. The group is introduced and I can sit back and simply enjoy another incredible performance along with 700 friends. And what a performance. The quartet opens with two pieces by themselves and then introduce Chestnut, whose light touch on the keyboard works very well with the quartet. The second half starts with two solo pieces by Chestnut before the quartet joins him. A lot of creativity ensues as the quartet and Chestnut are trying this full length collaboration for the first time. They premiered two pieces, including one they had rehearsed for the first time that afternoon! All members of the ensemble take turns introducing the pieces, which include spiritual works from a variety of backgrounds and provide a personal side to the evening. After a full performance, standing ovation, an encore, and then to the lobby to sign CDs and meet the audience, the quartet and Chestnut headed back for the hotel close to 10:30 p.m.