Of Arabesques, Peculiar Yet Familiar

On 27 July 2019, Joseph Ricker and Jamie Balmer—a.k.a. Duo Orfeo—graced Stonington, Connecticut’s La Grua Center for the fourth time, presenting European art music of the 19th century arranged for classical and electric guitars. The program’s title, Peculiar Arabesques, is shared also by the duo’s latest album, which deepens a diurnal approach to repertoire. For just as a famous chorale by Robert Schumann, from his Album für die Jugend, opened the concert with a tune that was clearly a product of its era, so did Ricker and Balmer close with Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, which by virtue of its watery textures and resplendent final chord comfortably transcended boundaries of time drawn by subsequent listeners.

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Between those two poles of evocation, each an answer to its own question of motivic faith, we encountered a range of geographic and cultural materials. Of these, two selections from Isaac Albéniz’s Suite Española, struck that same balance between past and future, articulated with a fine touch within a circle of intimate regard. The second of these was an emblematic example of the duo’s proprietary blend of freedom and restraint. Five pieces from Reynaldo Hahn’s La Rossignol Éperdu were even more wonderous, weaving strands of recollection through sonic photographs in color schemes that, while faded, retained their complex interrelationships. Two mazurkas by Frédéric Chopin were also highlights, walking a tightrope between sul ponticello and sul tasto phrasings while holding firm to a melodic core.

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Other evocative journeys included Enrique Granados’s Danzas Españolas, in which architectural splendor shared oxygen with quieter pictures of history and Ferdinando Carulli’s Andante varié de Beethoven. During the latter, a woman in the audience sat on the floor to work on her crocheting. In addition to her willingness to meet art with art, it seemed to serve as a metaphor for what all of us were hearing: a spool of filament unraveled and refashioned through a combination of instrument and human touch. And while the difference of guitars was certainly noticeable and appropriately chosen, adding especial vibrancy to the Ravel, it was more so the way in which they were handled that proved them worthy of expression.

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