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Courtesy of Cornell Concert Series

March 2, 2017

String Theory: The VIDA Guitar Quartet Coheres at Barnes

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On Thursday night, the VIDA Guitar Quartet made its Ithaca debut at Cornell’s Barnes Hall. Since 2007, the British ensemble has been impressing a conscientious sonic footprint on listeners. Seeing them live, however, the interlocking nature of their artistry is apparent not only in their craft, but also in their choice and assembly of programming.

There is, of course, plenty of savvy over which to marvel regarding each player’s technical wheelhouse. Mark Eden’s highs, Mark Ashford’s harmonizing and melodic leads, Amanda Cook’s unbreakable ground lines and Chris Stell’s rhythmic backbone (enhanced by tapping of the guitar body) make for a kindred fit that is rare among quartets of any constitution. By an uncompromising equanimity of individual allotments, VIDA shows its truest colors as a holistic unit.

The concert opens with selections from VIDA’s latest CD, The Leaves be Green, thereby nodding to their homeland. The three-part English Folk Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, based on melodies collected from the British Isles and originally written for marching band, feels most tactile in the version presented here. Two marches, and between them an intermezzo, morph from vivacious to tender and back again. In addition to introducing us to the quartet’s sound, the piece also lends insight into Vaughan Williams’s love for music in its most rudimentary forms (even a tune heard whistled at a pub was fair game for a composer so enamored). By contrast, Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite, a collection of six French courtly and lay dances that would be the short-lived composer’s most popular work, is just as vibrant under VIDA’s fingertips in guitarist Chris Susans’s reimagining (the only arrangement of the program not produced by one of the quartet’s members). More latticed than the macramé of the Vaughan Williams, it emotes as much vertically as horizontally, stretching more than enough canvas to support VIDA’s flourishing foregrounds.

From there, the program seems to change costumes into George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Formidably arranged over a three-year period by VIDA frontman Chris Stell, it highlights the brilliance of this timeworn classic’s rhythmic complexities. A piece normally rendered far too grandiose for my taste by dint of its popular orchestral arrangement (the piece was originally written for two pianos), it blossoms through VIDA’s intimate filter and begs new appreciation for its source and for the feat of making it amenable to plucked gut.

After flexing their knuckles during intermission, the musicians return for a lighter — though no less engaging — second half, starting with a highlight of the evening: Mark Eden’s nimble retelling of J. S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto. Smooth yet punctuated, flowing yet rhythmically precise, this perennial favorite reveals an inner heart too often glossed over at the touch of a bow. It also shows the quartet at its tessellated best, and underscores the unique sonority of each instrument.

This is followed by two contemporary pieces. The first is by Australian composer Phillip Houghton, who bases his Opals on the beloved precious stone of his homeland. Each of its movements plies a different atmospheric trade. Where “Black” is jagged and strong, “Water” evokes a pond shimmering in moonlight and “White” coheres with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle. Next is The Great British Rock Journey, written for VIDA by friend Nick Cartledge. A brilliantly composed piece that is a joy to hear, it cycles through familiar riffs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and others. In keeping with the rhapsodic theme, Queen’s instantly recognizable bohemianism provides the longest and most indulgent section, and a quotation of Coldplay’s “Clocks” is surprisingly fresh.

VIDA ends with a selection from the Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms, which after the excitement of its predecessors might fall flat if it wasn’t for the musicians’ deft balancing act of texture and character. On that latter note, an encore rendition of the theme from director Carol Reed’s 1949 classic, The Third Man, exits the stage amid a dash of humor by which to remember a performance otherwise steeped in enchanting rigor.

Tyran Grillo is a graduate student at Cornell University. He can be reached at tcg32@cornell.edu