Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (2011)

Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra is a work in three movements with a total duration of about 23 minutes. It is scored for double woodwinds, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion, and strings.

The guitar is one of the more challenging instruments to write for idiomatically and effectively. The challenge of writing a concerto for guitar and orchestra, where the solo instrument and the ensemble are equal partners, is even greater. In this concerto I looked for a variety of ways to highlight the guitar and set it off from the orchestra, while not delegating the orchestra to the role of mere accompanist and depriving it of the opportunity to assert itself fully.

The first movement, marked simply Allegro, begins with a characteristic syncopated rhythm in the strings, using only the notes of the guitar’s open strings. This intensifies briefly, but quickly subsides to usher in the first entrance of the solo guitar, who muses at leisure over the preceding material in a cadenza-like passage. The orchestra then quickens the pace and takes another go at the opening music, finally convincing the guitar to join in the fun. This becomes transformed into a melody accompanied by a walking bass pizzicato, eventually giving way to a more relaxed, lyrical section, marked Tranquillo. Two related but distinct melodies intertwine and build on one another, in time leading to a big climactic passage for orchestra alone. When this exhausts itself, the guitar resumes the second lyrical melody, leading immediately to an extended cadenza. A shortened restatement of the opening section follows, and a brief coda brings the movement to a close.

The second movement, Adagio, is the only movement with an explicit title: “Remembrance”. It has a bittersweet, nostalgic quality throughout, evoking a sense of personal loss as suggested by the title. High sustained strings play unassuming harmonies above a rising arpeggiated line in the cellos, and the guitar soon enters with a simple, unadorned melody, accompanied by pizzicato bass, solo cello, and solo viola. This leads to a darker variant of the melody, accompanied by softly pulsing lower strings. The proceedings are interrupted with a brief flourish by the guitar, but the dark melody resumes and slowly increases in intensity and urgency, leading to a huge climax with the entire string section hammering away insistently on octave B’s. As the energy of this passage becomes exhausted, eventually only the violas are left, still playing their octave B’s in triplets, which continues while the gentle music from the opening of the movement returns in a new key. The guitar takes up the simple melody, now accompanied by a solo flute and clarinet. A surprising harmonic twist by the guitar leads to a short coda in an unexpected key, where final goodbyes are made and the peace of acceptance is reached.

The main theme of the finale, marked Allegro deciso, features angular, incisive rhythms, rapid harmonic motion, and a jovial spirit. It is presented initially by the solo guitar, after a brief two-measure pizzicato introduction. The theme undergoes a modicum of development and eventually ushers in an extended transition to the lyrical and more serious-sounding second theme. This builds to a big climax for the whole orchestra with the guitar in an accompanying role, strumming flamenco-style. As things quiet down, the first theme finds a way to sneak back in and develops further. A rhythmic quirk at the end of this melody becomes the basis for the third theme, featuring an extended conversation between the guitar and the woodwinds in running 16th notes. Eventually the hectic pace slows down, and in a section marked Tranquillo the first theme returns for a final time in a lyrical guise, with all the sharp rhythmic corners smoothed out. A short coda recalls the very opening of the piece and ends with a bang.

Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra was commissioned by the South Bay Guitar Society, and was written between April and December 2011. The concerto is dedicated to guitarist Marc Teicholz.

— Lee Actor

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