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João Paulo Figueirôa’s Brazilian guitar glories

Guitarist Joao Figueiroa. (Katia Gama)

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.

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