Jad Azkoul returned to Washington for a few days last week, giving a master class at the Washington Conservatory, several concerts in private homes and a public performance at La Maison Francaise. For connoisseurs, his visit was memorable.
In the early 1990s, while he taught at American University and Catholic University, Azkoul was one of the most interesting musicians in Washington. His instrument is the guitar, and he is a master of its many subtle challenges, not only in technique but in musical style and expression.
The guitar can be many different kinds of instrument, and Azkoul is a master of all its potentials: the raw power of the amplified guitar used in rock (which is how Azkoul began as a boy in his native Lebanon), the delicacies of music composed for the lute, the fire and energy of Flamenco, the rhythmic complexities of Latin American dances and the experimental techniques of modern composers.
Reviewing a program of his years ago at the Phillips Collection, I wrote: "Azkoul can make his instrument sing. This is a skill far more important than the ability to whip out thousands of notes per minute accurately and expressively, which he also can do." This is even truer today.
Four years ago, Azkoul moved to Europe, where he is a professor at the Conservatoire Populaire de Musique in Geneva. He tours frequently, plays at festivals and gives an annual summer workshop in France. But he is well remembered in Washington.
Last Thursday, when he played at La Maison Francaise (an excellent venue for the subtle, intimate sound of the classical guitar), applause was loud and prolonged, and at the reception afterward he was besieged by admirers and autograph-seekers.
As happens usually in guitar recitals, most of the music was transcribed from works for other instruments. A major problem for guitar players is that not enough great music has been composed for their instrument; a major advantage is that, with minor adjustments, the guitar can handle a lot of music written for other instruments. It is, in terms of its ability to handle harmony and counterpoint, the most satisfying instrument that a player can carry onstage and tune by himself.
One set of transcriptions, of Astor Piazzolla's colorful, rhythmically intriguing "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires," was done by Agustin Carlevaro, brother of Uruguayan guitarist Abel Carlevaro, with whom Azkoul studied for years before becoming his teaching assistant. Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1" and "Gnossienne No. 1" and Isaac Albeniz's "Granada" and "Asturias" were played in Azkoul's own transcriptions from the piano originals.
Perhaps the finest compliment you can pay a guitar transcription is to say that the music sounded as though it had been written for guitar. This was true of all these pieces--a tribute not only to the skill of the transcribers but also to the player's control of his instrument. The two Albeniz pieces have been transcribed often for guitar--logically, because the sound of the guitar was in the composer-pianist's mind when he wrote the music. Azkoul's transcriptions sounded unlike any others I have heard, adding the joy of novelty to familiarity.
Of the four pieces on the program originally written for guitar, one, Lourival Silvestre's vivid "Illustrations Vulgaires," was written for Azkoul. Two others, Francis Poulenc's Sarabande and Manuel de Falla's "Hommage a Debussy," were the only guitar pieces written by the composers--a pity because they show a fine feeling for the instrument--and the Andante and Polonaise of the early 19th-century guitarist Napoleon Lacoste had historic interest as the work of one of the instrument's early masters.
The playing of this music was as imaginative as its selection.