Bold varieties

Posted: July 15, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Zack Cohen demonstrates the expressive range of the Spanish-style classical guitar

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – Never let the term, “classical guitar,” scare you away from a performance.

That’s the simplest lesson we can take from Zachary Cohen’s July 13 solo concert at Caffé Lena.

The 25-year-old guitarist from Troy, presented a dozen important modern works of composers from Spain, Paraguay, Brazil and Cuba. The music was dramatic, moody, inventive, complex, sometimes uplifting, occasionally sorrowful and, toward the end of the concert, challenging and complex.

Several of the pieces Cohen presented featured melodies a general audience would recognize without necessarily being able to identify … an indication that Spanish-style guitar music (and compositions emulating that guitar) is more prevalent than one might suppose. This was true from the first piece, the lightly skipping “Maxixie” by Augustin Barrios, which suggests a bright sort of chase or ride of some sort. It’s a piece, Cohen explained, that has been covered by various well-known classical guitarists including John Williams and Berto Rojas – whose version first interested Cohen in the classical guitar.

Sufficient to bring a tear to the eye, the quality of Cohen’s playing tipped the audience that a memorable evening was in store.

Zack Cohen at Caffè Lena (photo by Joseph Deuel).

There was not to be a letdown. Taking on Hector Villa Lobos’s “Prelude #1,” Cohen coaxed a sound that suggested there were more than six strings on his guitar, utilizing a peripatetic pinky and very delicate touches high on the neck. The piece is structured with a couple of bars of basic melody followed by various postmodern digressions that make the piece a bit of a free-for-all … when Cohen strikes a full chord – which it seems occurs only once in this piece – it’s with authority.

Villa Lobos’s “Prelude #2” is quite different. Here is a bit of ragtime with a little finger-slide in the basic melody. Cohen’s fingers played some very nice scales in the piece, followed by a pause and full major barre chords that lend great drama.

Cohen’s take on “Zambra Granadina,” (Isaac Albeniz) with some surprisingly modern-sounding passages, considering it was one of the oldest pieces presented, brought some chills with its sorrowful passages. It has a real gypsy sound to it, too, and Cohen’s work high on the neck … with some odd single notes at the end of the piece that sounded “happy,” somehow … made the piece memorable.

Cohen is a young performer and yet he seems to know just the right amount of time to devote to introducing a song. Isaac Albenz’s “Leyenda,” formed the basis for the fairly well-known popular music piece, “Spanish Caravan” (The Doors), Cohen explained. Starting, I believe, on the ninth fret, Cohen’s work was perhaps a little bit faster than the Doors’ excerpt but it was quite recognizable. Other parts were not part of the pop song. Some of those sections approached the sound of ambient music. Some very nice, clearly audible bass notes as well as bright chords struck high on the neck. marked the piece, which is both complex and accessible. Some notes flashed as brightly as the finish on the edges of Cohen’s guitar catching the spotlight … it’s a crowd-pleaser.

The set concluded almost as it had opened, with an uplifting composition. Albenz’s “Sevilla” suggests pageantry and grandeur: Formal dances, lace mantillas, flowers and gardens and sunshire. Cohen’s ability to maintain consistent rhythm was displayed’ a flourish of struck chords punctuated the performance.

The audience, alert and given a strong sense of context, was as ready to receive the challenges presented after the break as Cohen was to deliver. He opened with Enricro Granados’s “Spanish Dance #5,” wihich is a little surprising as it’s more lyrical its title suggests. The song, in fact, just about comes to a dead stop at one point. There are some nice harmonies and gently played chords.

Next up was Augistin Barrios’s, “Las Abajas,” with its very rapidly played arpeggios It’s a modern-era song but very straightforward that displayed Cohen’s deft fingerpicking.

Cohen switched gears as if approaching the down side of a hill for Isaac Albeniz’s, slower-paced “Granada,” which, Cohen explained, was a piece written for piano to emulate the Spanish folk-style guitar. Noting that the work, and others by the same composer, had come “full circle” back to the guitar, Cohen proceeded with a very contemplative piece with some sweeping moments seeming to swirl like small whirlpools on a pond surface.
Two pieces by Leo Brouwer of Cuba continued the strong set. “Danza Characteristica” was, perhaps, the most challenging piece for the audience. A strong bass line (like Leo Kottke?) and some runs high on the fretboard almost suggest modern rock (Steve Howe?), belying the fact that the piece was composed in 1939. Here was the one point in the concert in which Cohen tapped on the soundboard at all (this isn’t flamenco music; it’s classical).

Brouwer, Cohen told the audience, was very interested in rhythms, intensive harmonies and was a composer in search of “new sounds”.
A second Brouwer piece, “Berceuse,” may have been familiar, if not by name, to many in the audience. At least there are two groups of seven notes each (I counted seven, anyway) that are very familiar. It’s a beautiful, sweeping, melodic piece that Cohen performed well and placed well in the set as a counter to the very challenging work that preceded it.

Cohen finished with Barrios’s “La Catedral.” He told the audience that the work represented an attempt by the composer to describe a religious awakening and the discovery of a sort of place between mundane and the supernatural worlds. It begins subtly in a minor key and then there are some harmonics and a couple of chords. There are some movements in the piece that could be described as “steps” and some dark chords that suggest a funeral procession. This middle part includes the one scale that is played in the piece. Some very broad arpeggios and a very intricate and fast (probably difficult to play) progression of chords concludes the piece; it was quite a satisfying finish to the show.

It’s interesting to note that most of the works presented were written at the very end of Spanish colonialism, with the Cuban rebellion followed by the disastrous Spanish-American War of 1898 and internal instability in Spain. It almost appears as if the end of Spain’s empire (which would be followed by its internal collapse into civil war) was accompanied by the composition of some of its greatest music … but that may be over-thinking to the point of stupor, a notion representing a kind of myth that is blindly passed along by music and art historians. Something to ponder, then, but not to distraction.

Cohen performs frequently at The Daily Grind, Lark Street, Albany, and at 46 Third Street in Troy.

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