Grocott’s Mail

Grace Delivers Orchestral Sound on His Guitar

James Grace, one of South Africa’s top classical guitarists, enthralled the audience at a concert hosted by the Grahamstown Music Society on Tuesday 7 October.

Grace, who heads the classical guitar programme at the University of Cape Town, showed why he was the first guitarist to receive the Tagore Gold Medal at the Royal College of Music in London.

His programme was well chosen, focusing largely on Latin American and Spanish pieces which allowed him to elicit from his instrument an abundance of tonal colours and nuances.

Beethoven once referred to the classical guitar as a “mini-orchestra” and Grace certainly let his instrument live up to this label.

Grace played a guitar he commissioned from the Australian luthier Jeff Kemp which uses a lattice-braced soundboard, a major development in guitar construction which lends a greater clarity, presence and projection in comparison to the traditional fan-braced method.

The concert commenced with a Latin America component featuring two pieces by the Brazilian guitarist-composer Sardinha, who was influential in the rise of the Bossa Nova. The two pieces, Inspiricao and Improviso, were delivered with a lyrical sensibility and intimacy which I am sure helped to diffuse the cares of the day among the audience. Grace then played three pieces by the great Paraguayan virtuoso, Barrios Mangore.

The Madrigal-Gavotta with its bright, lively staccato chordal movements picked up the pace providing a lovely contrast to the opening pieces. The Mazurka maintained the pace and included beautiful use of harmonics to the texture of the sound.

The third piece, the beautiful and profound Una Limosna por el amor de Dios with the ripple-like effect of the tremolo induced a meditative experience (An Alm for the Love of God) composed as it was late in Barrios’ life as death approached.

The programme then took a brief detour in the form of Abdullah Ibrahim’s The Wedding, a solo arrangement by Grace which I felt maintained the spirit of the piece. Grace’s aim was to pare this song down so that its melodic essence can shine out. Along with some dancing African-infused bass lines and deft chordal voicings it was a lovely tribute to Ibrahim, now in his 80th year. Grace was married recently so it is obviously one of the soundtracks to his life.

The programme then turned to Spain with a work by the Spanish pianist Joaquim Malats, Serenata Espagnola, a brisk and lively salon piece which picked up the pace once more.

This was followed by the earliest work in the programme, Sor’s Gran Solo Op. 14, a dramatic and majestic piece propelled by extensive bass and treble pedalling along with some dazzling scale runs. This rousing piece was followed by a medley based on compositions dedicated to women, three Tarrega pieces, Adelita, Maria and Rosita, Llobett’s arrangement of El Testamen D’Amelia and Barrios’ Julia Florida.

Ranging from achingly beautiful to precocious and playful at times they evoked a range of emotional reactions to the women who touched them one way or another in their lives.

The programme concluded with Albeniz’s Granada and Asturias, both perennial favourites in the guitar repertoire both of which conjure up the fire and grandeur of Spain. Tarrega’s Recuerdas d’Alhambra another stalwart of the repertoire served as a fitting encore, another flowing tremolo work inspired by the cascading fountains of the Alhambra palace, a great legacy of the Moorish past.

Grace has a relaxed and confident presence on the stage and is in complete command of his instrument coaxing from it a wide range of sounds and effects.

The beautiful St Andrew’s Chapel has excellent acoustics which enhanced the whole experience. Sitting near the back, I could hear everything clearly and felt deeply connected to the performance.

The lighting was subdued and ambient but could have been better up front, it certainly however did not detract from a fine evening.

Thanks once again to the GMS for bringing performers of this calibre to Grahamstown.

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