Guitarist An Tran charms with gorgeous playing

Harold DuckettArts 865

An Tran, the young Vietnamese guitar virtuoso, played an exhilarating program of music at the Knoxville Guitar Society this past Saturday night.

His program ranged from the 20th-century Spanish composer Joaquin Turina and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos to the sensational French classical and jazz guitar composer Roland Dyens, along with folk songs from his native Vietnam.

Performing at the Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan on Cedar Bluff Road, Tran filled the sanctuary with gorgeous playing. His flawless technique completely avoids any errant string squeaks.

A native of Hanoi, Vietnam, Tran began winning competitions with the Vietnam National Guitar Competition at the age of 12. He came to the United States to study at 15 because, he told me, “America has more classical guitar societies than any other country in the world. So there are lots of playing opportunities.” He is currently completing his doctorate in classical guitar at Northwestern University.

Tran is built for the guitar. His relatively small hands allow his slender fingers to fit in the spaces between the guitar strings for flawless sound production, including luminous harmonics.

He began his program with Turina’s 1923 “Sevillana,” Op. 29, performed with very clean playing, a rather speedy tempo and bright flourishes.

That was followed by three of Villa-Lobos’ set of Five Preludes, written in 1940. They were made famous by Andrés Segovia, the great Spanish guitarist who transformed awareness of classical guitar music around the world. The first, “Prelude No. 1, ‘Homage to the Brazilian Sertanejo,’” was a slow, atmospheric piece, with sustained legato background supporting a lovely melody and crisp arpeggios.

“Prelude No. 3, ‘Homage to Bach’” was of a different order. Its more deliberate tempo and note separation conveyed the beauty and simplicity of Baroque music, even with its rush of notes.

“Prelude No. 4, ‘Homage to the Brazilian Indian’” required the difficult skill of crystalline harmonics played at pianissimo, but still with clarity and precision.

Then the musical language switched to French with Dyens’ story music. The first was “Flying Wigs” (“Perruques volantes”) with its obvious bursts of laughter that began the piece. It’s about riding in a convertible, with the top down, in San Francisco when the driver suddenly puts on brakes to avoid hitting a dog. The lady’s wig goes flying through the air, in almost a dream, as Dyens himself told the story. Aside from the humor of the piece, it also had a magical harmonic texture and funny little knocks on the guitar body.

Next came two of the three pieces from Dyens’ “Triaela.” “Black Horn” (“When Spain Meets Jazz”) required changing the tuning to a significantly looser E string. One can hear the notorious blaring of car horns in Parisian traffic, with a bluesy subtext that evolved into a driving all-out blues rhythm, mixed with laidback jazz textures. There were blitzes of arpeggios, anchored with a wobbling bass line.

The third in the set, “Clown Down” (“Gismonti au Cirque”), was a sizzling piece with the kitchen sink of techniques, from more of the buzzing bass texture and a chorus of car horns, overlaid with snappy harmonics that kept increasing. There were sharp strikes across the strings and a fascinating section of the right hand slapping the strings while the left hand played delicate notes high on the fret board.

The second half of the program was all music Tran learned while growing up in Vietnam. It began with a classic Vietnamese folk song his father used to sing to Tran – “Bèo Dat Mây Trôi,” arranged by the Vietnamese composer Dāng Ngoc Long, and two of his lovely compositions: “Rain,” in which the sounds of raindrops on a metal roof could be heard, and “Central Highlands of Vietnam,” with its sparkles of sunlight and gentle blowing breezes.

More about the Knoxville Guitar Society and its schedule of concerts can be found here.

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