By Richard Anderson
Back in 2010 Liverpool Guitar Society were making plans for a showcase performance of Society players and ensembles at the Capstone Theatre that May. Amongst the various ideas being discussed was the notion of inviting a special player along to play, a Liverpudlian we knew from performances at the Royal Northern College lunchtime concerts, namely Steven Joseph Hickey.
Preliminary discussions began but the idea was shelved when we realised that the date of our concert coincided with a Steve Reich event at the RNCM with the composer himself present and amongst the pieces being performed was Reich’s multilayed piece for guitar and backing tape, Electric Counterpoint by a certain Steven Joseph Hickey.
So cut to nine months later and after discussing the idea of a gig with Steven at a performance of his at Manchester Guitar Circle, and discussions with Hope Univeristy, LGS were able to promote a concert for Steven at the Capstone Theatre with a support set supplied by ensembles from Liverpool Guitar Society.
The Liverpool Guitar Society’s ensembles played for 30 minutes or so with two full ‘guitar orchestra’ pieces top and tailing the set – the opening Sabre Dance by Khatachurian and the finale being Handel’s Passacaglia – both arranged by our Musical Director Richard Harding. Despite the excellent acoustics of the venue, we’re still struggling to get good positioning of 12 guitarists so that each player can hear all parts (ideas welcome!). Better were the performances of selections from Praetorius’ Terpsichore – a ‘renaissance classic’. 5 short pieces were performed across two quartets. Given that for some of the players this was their first concert within a ‘proper theatre’ these were performed very well. The reminder of the set featured an arrangement of a J.S. Bach Prelude and Fugue by Stanley Yates; Andrew York’s ‘Lotus Eaters’ previously performed by the amazing Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and our own arrangment of Metallica’s One – as Richard pointed out in the introduction, “there simply isn’t enough heavy metal at classical music concerts”.
Video links of Liverpool Guitar Ensemble’s performances:
The headliner,Steven Joseph Hickey, then took to the stage. He announced in his introduction, this was to be his first concert in his home town of Liverpool, adding that his first ever guitar teacher was in the audience to see him, and this would be the first time he has ever seen Steven perform! Both events long overdue suggested Steven.
He opened with La Catedral, Augustine Barrios’ tribute to Bach which Steven played with very nice tonal variation. The exceptional sound quality of the 2010 Lattice Stephen Hill guitar (borrowed from his friend Manus Noble whilst his own is being built) became immediately apparent in the moden venue of the Capstone. Steven’s use of harmonics rang brilliantly clear and dynamic changes were pronounced and used to excellent effect.
Next up was Quatre Pieces pour la Guitare by twentieth century English composer Lennox Berkeley. I was not aware of these pieces in the classical guitar repertoire and as Steven introduced them as being written in 1928 for Andrés Segovia by Berkeley, who was at that time only twenty five. Apparently Segovia never peformed them and in fact they were not discovered until after the famous guitarist’s death amongst his papers in 2001.
The four pieces comprise of about 10 minutes of music in total and were reminiscent of pre-war neo classical works. I have subsequently read Berkeley was greatly influenced by Ravel and taught by Nadia Boulanger which comes across in further listening to this collection with its very French feel. Again, use of differing tones Steven really brought the pieces to life
Railroad by Gary Ryan was something of a very pleasant surprise. Contemporary guitarist and composer, and at times Steven’s teacher, Ryan is not a household name but on the evidence of this piece should be. Railroad is from a collection of pieces inspired by North America. This one has a ‘cowboy music’ feel. Full of Copeland-esque effects with tuneful melodies accompanied by harmonic effects from the blues and country and western genres rarely heard in classical guitar recitals. This was a superb lyrical piece, extremely listenable and played with assured confidence by Steven. I got the feeling that this was many people’s favourite of the evening and it showed good programming judgement of Steven to include it in what was a extremely diverse programme from a style perspective but not at all incongruous.
Following the break Steven and the Liverpool Guitar Society performed Contingency Music, written by our Musical Director Richard Harding. The piece is improvisation in nature, in which each guitarist chooses which phrase to play and when. As the pieces overlap a shifting sound landscape emerges. It was good to do a piece together with Steven as a celebration of this successful collaberation (though unfortunately the video was cropped too tight to capture him onstage)
The final piece of the programme was Electric Counterpoint. I wasn’t quite sure how this personal favourite of mine would come across in a live environment. I was not disappointed. The way the score has been created, and the projection Steven acheives from his guitar, meant that the solos line really stood out. The juxtaposition of Pat Metheny’s recorded backing on electric guitars and the audiences position quite near to performer in the Capstone gives a different feel to the piece from the recordings I’m familiar with (most notably Metheny’s and David Tanenbaum’s). Steven’s concentration throughout was very evident and required to keep in time rhythmically. He got the feel of then dance-like syncopations spot on.
The crowd called him back for an encore in which he treated us a great rendition of the Prelude from Suite BWV998 by J.S. Bach
The classical guitar is a strange instrument. Seemingly very popular if Classic FM and It’s work with Craig Ogden are anything to go by. Barely an hour goes by without at least one guitar piece included on the radio station. And yet, because of the instrument’s perceived weakness of repertoire , concerts are hard to promote, and rarely generate huge audiences outside of the biggest names and the ubiquitous Rodrigo concerto. For those appreciating superb musicianship it is their loss. We were very proud to have put on an event and to promote a young musician so comfortable in his delivery of the pieces and confident in his introductions. We hope Steven can go far as a performer, not an easy task with so many guitarsts competing. We would like to thank him for agreeing to our ensemble’s appearing on the bill, for the Master Class he gave to the Society the following day and we look forward to hopefully working together again in the future.
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