The guitar has a distinguished legacy and repertoire. If you include lute music, which is easily adapted, a guitarist has centuries of literature to mine. So the programming of Sunday evening’s recital at the National Gallery of Art by Mak Grgic, assisted by guitarist Nejc Kuhar and cellist Jay Campbell, was puzzling and off-kilter. It consisted of two works by Kuhar and one by Nina Senk in between four Bach transcriptions. There was no discernible connection among any of the pieces; no theme, such as “Bach reimagined” emerged.
Grgic, who is studying at the University of Southern California, has a lot of work in front of him. In transcriptions of Bach solo violin music and the famous “Air” from the Orchestral Suite No. 3, rhythmic inaccuracies and uneven passage work made a hash of the basic structures. I’m not a foe of transcriptions; the heavily contrapuntal violin movements can be gainfully clarified on the guitar, with its wider range and ability to play chords without rolling them. But Grgic didn’t seem to know what he was doing. There was no intelligible separation of vertical and horizontal elements, and without rhythm you don’t really have music, anyway.
The “Air” was a particular waste. The guitar can do many things, but spinning out a legato line is not one of them, even in the hands of a master. And why only transcriptions? Bach wrote seven solo lute works, any of which would have probably come off better.
Senk’s “Entourer II,” a duo for cello and guitar, was a world premiere. It consisted of unconnected atonal figures and sound effects; violent, whimsical and dour a la Anton Webern, but without his brevity. For some reason, there was a long guitar cadenza partway through. To the extent there was a form to this piece, it went by this listener, and the applause at the end lasted barely long enough to get the performers offstage.
Kuhar’s two pieces — “Niagara Falls With Water” and “Carpe GuiCell” — were eclectic and fun, the former involving some hand percussion and performance art (two players on one instrument, then one player moving through the hall), the latter a homage to the 18th century, consisting of a somber pavane followed by a gentle Slovenian waltz.
Battey is a freelance writer.