Back to previous page


Post Most

João Paulo Figueirôa’s Brazilian guitar glories

By Stephen Brookes,

Where would contemporary guitar music be without Brazil?

Over the past hundred years, composers from Heitor Villa-Lobos to Sergio Assad have pushed the guitar into colorful, wildly imaginative new sound-worlds, and on Saturday night the Brazilian guitarist João Paulo Figueirôa explored some of that intriguing repertoire at Westmoreland Congregational Church, as part of the always-interesting Marlow Guitar Series.

The evening got off to a shallow start — an instantly forgettable bit of fluff by the 19th-century guitarist J. Kaspar Mertz — but quickly entered deeper waters. Bach’s spare-but-majestic Lute Suite in G Minor, BWV 995, is one of the great works of the repertoire, and Figueirôa approached it with respect — perhaps even to a fault. He seemed most at home in the slow movements and found much subtle beauty there, but overall it was a rather polite, distant performance, never generating the power that builds throughout the work and gives it its profound, unstoppable momentum. Figueirôa seemed to be a gentle poet of the guitar — quietly introspective, musically soft-spoken, and not out to ruffle any ears.

But in the second half of the program — which was dedicated to the music of Brazilian composers — he began to come alive. Two works by Egberto Gismonti (the wistful ballad “Água e Vinho” and the mile-a-minute “Loro”) let Figueirôa visibly relax, and he tossed off Gismonti’s jazz-inflected melodies with obvious pleasure. Villa-Lobos’s “Mazurka-Choro” got a sharp-edged reading, and things turned even more interesting in the dark, unsettling “Etude No. 12.” Figueirôa dug into it with a kind of tough-minded intensity he hadn’t shown in the earlier works, as if he’d suddenly caught on fire.

It was Assad’s “Aquarelle,” though, that really stole the show. It’s a tour-de-force for guitar with an improvisational, almost whimsical feel, full of quicksilver twists and turns and delicate shades of color. Figueirôa gave it a lively and imaginative reading, and it was clear he was in his element.

As an ambassador of Brazilian music, this is a guitarist worth hearing.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

© The Washington Post Company