The Guitar Gods Conspire

Call the Police! Oh wait, one of these guys was the Police, or at least one of them. In any case, rules are being broken in New Haven,  rules about what instruments go together to play what kind of music. The perpetrators are two renowned musical pioneers: Yale’s mind- and genre-blowing classical maestro Ben Verdery and former Police lead guitarist Andy Summers (left to right in photo). They were in town this week practicing a first-ever (as far as anyone knows) concerto for electric and classic guitar, which they will perform Thursday night at Sprague Hall.

The concert, part of the New Music New Haven series, begins at 8 p.m.  It’s free. It also includes pieces by some Yale graduate students. (Sprague is at the corner of College and Wall streets.)

Verdery commissioned the concerto from Yale School of Music-based composer Ingram Marshall. Verdery and Summers have already played the concerto in Carnegie Hall in New York and, most recently, in Belfast.  Called “Dark Florescence,” the 20-minute piece includes some ethereal moments, a more canonic section, an expanded improvisional interlude based on Balinese scales, and a dark final movement Marshall calls “Baghdad Blues.”

“Everyone gets the name wrong,” mistaking “florescence” for “fluoresence,” said Marshall (in photo), who lives in Hamden. He wrote it in a cabin in the Sierras of California. “It was one of those great summers with wildflower craziness.”

You could use that last word to describe some of Ben Verdery’s music. “Classical” works as well as any conventional label to describe the music, which is to say not at all. You never know quite what you will hear when you see the 50-year-old classical guitar professor and world-traveling musician in performance: a straight-ahead chamber duet with a flutist can lead into a dissonant, spacey solo piece on classical guitar amplified and massaged through any number of electronic toys. He moves from Bach to the Artist Formerly Known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. (Click here to read a profile.)

Part of what keeps Verdery’s music at the cutting edge is the breadth of musicians with whom he collaborates. His latest partner in genre-smashing is Summers (pictured), who blazed his own electronic trails in his days with the Police. Summers and Verdery met at a guitar festival in New York. They began exploring the electronic-classical duet idea and have cooked up a CD of originals they plan to issue soon.

They play alone on that CD. At Sprague Thursday, they will play with an orchestra. Summers said the previous two performances would have benefited from more rehearsing with the orchestra. “Some of the repeat effects I do on the electric guitar have never been done before. The orchestra hasn’t heard it before,” he said. So they got a good rehearsal in Tuesday afternoon before heading to Zinc for dinner and then to New York City for the night.

In making his electric fit with Verdery’s classical guitar, Summers said, he uses a high vibrato sound, “which doesn’t interfere with the middle range of the warmer classical. It’s like a pianist and singer, I think.” The sound should be especially exquisite in New Haven Thursday night, thanks to the acoustics in Sprague Hall’s lovingly renovated Morse Recital Hall.

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posted by: joedoesn'tlivehereanymore on November 18, 2005  12:06am

I am no musicologist, and it almost took a MM degree to read the program, but this was a great concert!  It seems that music is one area where Yalies are as impressive performing as they are on paper.

The first student piece was what I would call minimalist, with the first eight minutes or so hardly more than individual brief long-spaced notes by a violin and flute.  I longed for companion images on a screen at the back of the stage, perhaps a bird turning its head with each note, or a cat walking.  The music made me think of Clint Eastwood’s Westerns and a desolate windblown hot scene with a lizard blinking and scooting, or Clint blinking and spitting.

The music progressed in complexity over the evening as the orchestra grew, perhaps someone else will comment on the other pieces.

Sitting front center in the sixth row to see one third of the Police veterans, I was tempted but refrained from calling out for “Omegaman!” or another of the few of the trio’s songs by Andy Summers.  I was smiling from hair to toe during the second part while Summers and Verdery traded improvisational solos and the conductor provided quickly obeyed commands to a man who formerly walked on the moon of rockstardom.  As in the earlier pieces, the students were excellent and I especially appreciated the breaks between emphasis on them with guitars adding accent and emphasis on the guitars that I believe bounced between orchestrated and improvised. Dark Florescence was a thrill, and it was easy to respect Andy Summers as electric guitar musician, rather than former member of the Police.  Think Mickey Hart, percussion expert.

Thanks to Ingram Marshall for composing with imagination and flexibility and the Music School for offering the free concert.

posted by: jef on November 28, 2005  12:45am

I cannot emphasise enough what an impact that A.Summers and the Police have had on me since becoming a musician in the early 80’s.
I was not so impressed, however, with him in this performance; either it was his performance or I.Marshall’s composition that made Summers sound less musical than all other music of that night.