The Washington Guitar Quintet debuts Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater as a five-star assemblage of local talent boasting jazz great Charlie Byrd and a repertoire ranging from toccatas to tangos. It is, claims member Myrna Sislen, "the only group of its kind on the planet."
It's been 17 months since Byrd, Sislen, John Marlow, Jeffrey Meyerriecks and Larry Snitzler first appeared as ad hoc participants in the Guitar Congress special event at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall. What brought them together was the loving memory of Sophocles Papas, who had died several months earlier at age 92. Since 1922, this charismatic guitar mentor helped produce many top-notch players, including everyone in the quintet. Papas, Snitzler recalls, is "the one thing we have in common."
"Our playing together as a quintet is a tribute to the fact that Papas was here for so many decades and drew so many people to Washington to study. What's amazing beyond that is that all of us have been able to survive and go on in the city."
No one knew exactly what to expect at their first rehearsal, but Marlow remembers that everyone realized "this is a joint effort and personalities have to be subdued for the sake of the ensemble." Not that much subduing proved necessary. "We always got along as friends and colleagues," Snitzler says, "but musically, it clicked right away, which was something I think that astonished all of us."
Marlow and Snitzler fondly remember the summer of '86, a time when practices at Charlie Byrd's home in Annapolis routinely followed afternoon cruises around the bay on his sailboat. That fall, after the enthusiastic audience reception at Gaston Hall, and an invitation to play the Terrace as part of the Washington Performing Arts Society subscription series, the quintet became more serious. A repertoire search began: Pieces written for five guitars don't exactly grow on trees. Purchased arrangements yielded some decent Vivaldi but little else, so the group turned to itself. Meyerriecks, Marlow and Byrd provided most of the new arrangements, with Snitzler contributing the odd tango. Wednesday's program will feature "Suite Gershwin," a collection of popular tunes put together by Meyerriecks, as well as the Byrd-arranged "Django!," consisting of three works written by or dedicated to the legendary French guitarist Django Reinhardt. This concert marks the world premiere of an original Marlow composition, "Quintetto Pentagonia," which takes the number five literally. There are five movements: the first starts out in 5/4 time; the chorale's melody and the finale's opening motive are constructed on five notes.
"As I wrote this work," Marlow explains, "if I couldn't invent something out of five, then I figured out how I could make something out of five that I'd already written. Everything is based on five or multiples of five. There are 10 variations on the English tune 'Scarborough Fair.' "
You won't find "pentagonia" in the dictionary. It's a Marlow creation suggesting perhaps five equal partners. Meyerriecks thinks maybe the title was inspired from rehearsals at Sislen's apartment overlooking the Pentagon.
Snitzler acknowledges that "having five guitars together is ... a little bizarre." It presents real arranging headaches, though varied tunings, particularly the lowering of the bass strings, can increase range and color slightly. Charlie Byrd, who pioneered playing crossover performances, half classical and half jazz, has found himself trailblazing again.
"I think the good news and the bad news of this group is that it is a very new sort of innovation. None of us has the kind of ensemble experience you find in string quartets or brass quintets -- guys who have years of tradition and experience in ensemble playing. It might sound like a minor problem, but it isn't. It's a huge problem. We've had to sort of feel our way along as we go."
Since the guitar has a percussive quality, achieving uniform attacks (getting all the guitars to go "plunk" at the same time) and terraced dynamics (assuring that the first guitar is loudest) required a lot of work. Technical difficulties have been mitigated somewhat by the diplomatic way the quintet operates. Parts are randomly dealt, so first guitarist in one piece may be a support player in the next. "John writes hard parts for everybody," Sislen laughs. "He's very democratic; everybody has a difficult time."
The nature of a work occasionally determines who gets what part. Meyerriecks gave Sislen the lead in Gershwin's "The Man I Love." He and Byrd are the best improvisers, so they trade off in "Django!" Byrd has encouraged the others to improvise, but so far Meyerriecks, who also pursues this in a different context with the contemporary music Lenox Ensemble, has been the only taker. "He's getting too good at it," Byrd chuckles in friendly rivalry. "I'm going to have to cut him off."
Five versatile role players helped provide a strong group pulse that allows more leeway for elaborate, orchestrated textures. The Gershwin and Marlow use a stereo panning effect obtained by passing musical lines across the quintet one instrument at a time. Ensemble tightness results from an e pluribus unum philosophy.
"I think each player will always have a definite identity in the group," Meyerriecks says, "but at the same time I think we've worked pretty well at meshing these sounds into one." All the guitarists admit they have become better musicians through their involvement with the quintet.
Four men and a woman present an interesting visual mix on stage. One of Sislen's concert dresses "is equal in value to all four of our tuxedos," Snitzler says.
Group compatibility remains strong thanks to their joint aim to perform a mixed repertoire -- part classical, part popular, all accessible. The public must agree with this approach. The Terrace date sold out shortly after the WPAS brochures were mailed, though some standing room tickets remain. Those without tickets this time will get a chance to see the quintet Dec. 16 at George Mason University.
"We're going to repeat the program so that our friends and family members who are angry with us right at the moment will have an opportunity to hear it," Sislen remarks.
The Washington Guitar Quintet has big plans. More concerts, recordings and videos are in the offing. The group is investigating a "sixth member," namely a management company. Sislen now handles PR, Snitzler takes care of the correspondence. Everyone has ideas for expanding the repertoire. Big band arrangements, Ellington pieces, Benny Goodman-Charlie Christian jazz classics, Faure', assorted Renaissance composers all crop up in the discussion.
They see this quintet as a permanent addition to their busy careers as solo performers, teachers, and chamber and jazz musicians. Monday afternoon has officially been set aside for quintet rehearsal. "Once we get together, we have a good time, laughin' and scratchin'," Sislen says.