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Melbourne Guitar Quartet

by Julie McErlain

Here is a true guitar family. Formed in 2005, the Melbourne Guitar Quartet is continuing its unique and mesmerising concert programs of new repertoire for guitar quartet. Its innovative collection of instruments includes designs by the late Australian luthier Graham Caldersmith – classical bass, baritone and requinto (treble) – which have not only expanded the tonal range beyond the standard classical guitar, but also have a wonderful visual stage presence.

Highly applauded at the 2021 Peninsula Summer Music Festival, the guitar family members Jeremy Tottenham, Ben Dix, Daniel McKay and Michael MacManus gave another sell-out concert in the ambient Wyselaskie Hall, Parkville.

Embracing the music of Arvo Pärt, the quartet opened the program with Fratres, exploring a fantastic range of colour, resonance, echoing timbres and melodic interplay in an arrangement that transformed the composer’s fundamentally simple structures. The unique instrumentation of treble, baritone and two standard classical guitars allowed colourful and sensitive variations on the simple shape of the Medieval flavoured melody. Opening rippling arpeggios developed into contrasting and assertive Flamenco styled timbres, with each new segment revealing new colours as the harmonic density grew.

Inspired by the colours of the Australian landscape, Queensland composer and guitarist Robert Davidson has produced fine works of art for the MGQ. The River was full of vivacious technical episodes, constantly moving reflections and overlapping ripples. A folk-like melody took prominence as the accompaniments became more varied and virtuosic, with a prominent bass solo eventually rising from a rapid flow of conversational and contrapuntal statements. Most effective from these four skilled musicians was the intuitive and united ebb and flow of intensity and dynamic changes. Cliffs began with a languorous Sarabande dance rhythm, with a repeated song-like melody supported by an ever increasingly virtuosic accompaniment. Resonance, string harmonics and blended harmonies created shadows, while a strong walking bass line added depth and loftiness.

Award winning guitarist Pat Metheny has also inspired the MGQ’s arrangements. Highly exciting and virtuosic was Heat of The Day, where syncopated Andalusian dance rhythms, percussive techniques and rousing hand-clapping set a new scene. Exciting tremolos and high repeated single notes added bright timbres as the guitarists exchanged solos weaving in and out of the surrounding busy Flamenco textures. An MGQ favourite, Pat Metheny’s Letter From Home is a strikingly powerful and expressive ballad, its free moving and expressive introduction telling a nostalgic story as the piece developed a fully romantic and soulful sound on classical guitars.A smooth flowing 7-time rhythm added the sense of a slow circling dance by candlelight, wistful yet calming.

From Peteris Vasks’ String Quartet No 4, MGQ member Daniel McKay transcribed three movements, which he felt evoked shades of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Toccata 1 exploded with urgency and drama in accented chords, frenetic unison passages and freewheeling improvisatory solos. Atonality and tension combined with incessant edgy punctuations. An illusive Chorale steadied contrasting exploratory chords and gave rhythmic unity, as solo baritone melodic fragments climbed in walking steps, restless and insistent till a calm cadence was found. This was a fascinating and colorful piece. Toccata 2 recaptured the agitation of the main themes as chromatic lines rose and fell, circling upwards, climbing atonal ladders and demanding rhythmic gymnastics from the players. An explosion of tremolos dissolved into a short closing blur of white noise and finality.

Technically brilliant, this was an absorbing program from a seriously innovative and balanced ensemble, whose stimulating music, high artistic skills and passion is most admirable. Dedicated to using instruments and compositions which are Australian made, they are a truly creative guitar family.

Photo supplied.


Julie McErlain reviewed the concert given by the Melbourne Guitar Quartet at Wyselaskie Hall on March 12, 2021.

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