Utah Symphony’s Guitar Celebrations puts the virtuoso art of electric guitar on regal display on classical music stage

There are many classical music concertgoers who can rattle off names of some of today’s most respected violinists and pianists but what about guitarists — notably, those who are masters of the electric guitar. How many have heard of masters such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, and John Petrucci? Others include Steven Mackey, James Moore, JiJi Kim, Gretchen Menn, David Robertson, Joe Gore, Heiko Ossig and Daniele Gottardo  — eight guitar masters who will be performing this week in Salt Lake City. 

Described by guitarist and composer Mackey as polymaths and musical omnivores, electric guitarists work with a vast palette of techniques including picking, pinch harmonics, hybrid picking, two-handed tapping, arpeggio tapping and whammy bar effects. Along with their prowess to shred, they can play at a lightning tempo with phenomenal accuracy that sounds as seamless as any virtuoso could achieve while picking melodies as beautiful as any slow movement in a piano or violin concerto.

This week, the Utah Symphony’s Guitar Celebrations properly elevates the position of acoustic and electric guitar in contemporary classical music. Beginning with today’s Another Night on Earth concert, featuring eight guitar masters, at The State Room in downtown Salt Lake City, the events will include concerts this weekend at Abravanel Hall (April 19-20), as well as a guitar gear exhibition and a series of workshops for guitarists at Abravanel Hall on April 20.

Steven Mackey. Photo Credit: Kah Poon.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Mackey, who is on the music faculty at Princeton University,  said that the idea of the electric guitar on the symphonic concert stage has evolved over the last 40 years,. “As for the novelty of it, people either were really excited by it or thought it was a terrible idea,” he added. The instrumental makeup of contemporary music groups has moved away from the bread-and-butter standard of the Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano). “Now, half of the new music ensembles formed have electric guitar in them,” he noted.

As a young Northern Californian rock band musician who practiced five to six hours a day, Mackey was inspired by guitarists such as Satriani, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, George Santana and others. 

Last month, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra premiered his concerto Aluminum Flowers, with JIJI as soloist, a work that will receive its Utah premiere, featuring Gretchen Menn.  Each of the five movements (Introduction, Echo, Canción, Fantasia and Loop) is written for a different instrument. The Introduction features the nylon string “classical” or “Spanish” guitar while Echo highlights the electric guitar through a delay pedal, “requiring impeccable timing from the soloist, to produces a rapid moto perpetuo texture,” as Mackey explained in a composer’s note. In the interview, he added, “when the guitarist locks into the digital delay and it is timed perfectly, it creates and magnifies a brilliant cascading effect.” 

The Echo movement indicates a unique challenge for the conductor because they have no agency in controlling the timing or giving into the urge for a rubato, for example. Otherwise, as Mackey noted, the whole cascading effect would come off slightly off tempo. Thus, the score for the Echo movement instructs the conductor to take eight bars to lock into the proper tempo. When Aluminum Flowers had its premiere in Philadelphia last month, with Robert Spano as conductor, Mackey said, with a chuckle, that the conductor did not take it personally that it was momentarily taken out of his hand. 

In Canción, with a nod toward the artistry of Carlos Santana, Mackey gives the soloist the platform to demonstrate how overdrive and distortion can achieve a “sustained, lyrical, singing tone.” The Fantasia movement showcases the guitar as a prepared instrument, with “a guitar pick threaded through the strings to create a gong-like sound – and a bottle neck which slides up and down the string unencumbered by the frets.” With a looper, the final movement showcases the guitar”s capabilities to generate polyphonic.and orchestral textures. 

More importantly, what threads the five movements into a cohesive concerto is that the pitches A and F influence the structure, beginning in the introduction with a bass line that rocks back and forth between A and F. Hence, this became the initials for the work’s title Aluminum Flowers. The metaphor represents the “image of metal wires carrying current from the guitar to its pedals like veins to petals conjured the image of metal flowers,” as Mackey described precisely. 

“In the first draft, I discovered this nerdy obsession with the rocking motion of A and F,” Mackey explained, adding that “I became so preoccupied with the two poles representing the initials. And, then, the five movements became different kinds of bouquets, which also captured the analogy of the work’s organic nature.”

Mackey’s catalog of works covers a lot of territory, including concerti for electric guitars, chamber music for electric guitars  and more than two dozen pieces for orchestra in general. The composing process for Aluminum Flowers went so quickly. Mackey said that he never thought about risks or pitfalls, especially with the soloist switching up the guitar configuration from one movement to the next. “In my other guitar works, I was spare on the effects but this time, I highlight them flat out and in the front.” He added that he already had works for the electric guitar which gave the soloist the moment to display their virtuosity in moving their fingers quickly, “but I wanted to set the challenge for myself to get into the effects a lot more.”

Mackey is pleased to see how the electric guitar has found its way into the occasionally staid corridors of music conservatories. For instance, classical guitarists for their master’s degree recitals are working in solo pieces for electric guitars, along with chamber pieces featuring string quartet and electric guitar. It finally seems that as many walls separating what is deemed as “high” and “low” art in music are being taken down, the guitar is being celebrated for its presence in more than 600 years of music history in the western world. 

Mackey, whose music is published by Boosey & Hawkes, has received numerous honors for his compositions. Slide (2011), an experimental music theater piece, won a Grammy, for a recording featuring Mackey on electric guitar alongside vocalist Rinde Eckert and eighth blackbird. 

James Moore.

Like Mackey, James Moore has crafted an equally compelling  evangelizing mission for bringing electric guitar to the classical music stage. Incidentally. this native of the San Francisco Bay Area is studying with Mackey, as he pursues his doctorate in composition at Princeton. Moore’s concerto for electric guitar, scored with chamber orchestra, Sleep is Shattered, premiered last month at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, to rousing critical reception. 

As evidence of electric guitar’s ubiquitous and eclectic capacity in practically every realm of contemporary music making, Moore’s career parallels and dovetails beautifully with that of Mackey as well as the guitarists with whom Moore will be sharing the stage this week in Utah. Recent projects include Send Back My Love, a set of ballads for the multi-faceted mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran with Moore on electric resonator guitar; Ghost School, a multimedia piece for haegeum (a Korean bowed string instrument) and found sounds, written for Soo Yeon Lyuh with So Percussion; Desolation Pops for prepared piano and strings, written for the pianist Kathleen Supové with The Rhythm Method string quartet; and The Untroubled Mind, a song cycle featuring vocalist/fiddler Anna Roberts-Gevalt, cellist Theresa Wong, and Ellen Fullman performing on her 50-plus foot microtonal-tuned “Long String Instrument.” 

And, like Mackey, Moore has a knack for establishing holistic symbolic integrity in his music, starting with the provenance of the concerto’s title. Sleep is Shattered, which is Moore’s first major undertaking featuring electric guitar and orchestra, references Dante’s Divine Comedy and the visceral impact of being transported between the worlds of fantasy that are explored. His note elegantly encapsulates the connection: “I have spent a good chunk of my career navigating the challenges of bringing the electric guitar to the classical concert stage. Although we guitarists are often seen as outsiders in this setting, we bring to the table an exceptional ability to traverse between acoustic and electronic sound worlds.”

Moore, who is in his forties, was raised on epic guitar heroes from bands like Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen. Later, he directed his sights on avant-grade guitarists who experimented in a vast territory of extended effects. One of the greatest pioneers, starting in the 1960s, Fred Frith blazed the trail for prepared guitars, by setting the instrument on their backs and then having altered it, he would scrape, pluck, tap and bow the guitar, while feeding the sound through electronics. Moore would later connect to Marc Ribot, for whom he wrote Sleep Is Shattered. In an interview with The Utah Review, Moore recalled, in his teens, the first time he heard of Frith: “it was on a late-night broadcast on a college radio station and I took a tape to my guitar teacher and he said that he had no idea what the hell he was doing.” Meanwhile, Moore discovered the wonderful simpatico he had with the artistry of Ribot, who during his teen years played guitar in various garage bands while studying with Haitian classical guitarist and composer Frantz Casseus. 

Writing his first electric guitar concerto with Ribot in mind, Moore set out to leave generous room in the score for improvising, to heighten the continuously evolving organic character of the piece. However, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra decided to program Sleep Is Shattered for a world premiere, the symphony’s artistic team requested that Moore perform it, in order to highlight the composer-performer aspect of the new concerto.

For the Chicago premiere, Mackey said, “I engineered it with:25% improvisation, to still allow for plenty of free wiggle room.” And, Moore will be performing the solo part with the Utah Symphony this weekend.

While some might imagine guitarists as armed for battle to nab the crown for best shredding prowess, the group of masters convening in Utah know each other well and represent a tight-knit community of artists. As noted previously, Mackey is Moore’s mentor at Princeton. “I discovered that JIJI and I had the same classical music teacher and we became good friends during the pandemic, through an Internet poker club,” he added. As for all of the guitarists meeting up this week in Salt Lake City, it feels like being, according to Moore, “warm and fuzzy – a great way to celebrate and appreciate the different things each of us brings to the guitar.”

The State Room concert (today at 8 p.m.) has an Another Night On Earth theme, with a guest ensemble of the eight electric and acoustic guitarists coming together to perform classical and contemporary music.

The Abravanel Hall concerts (April 19, 7:30 p.m. and April 20, 5:30 p.m.) will include the Utah premieres of Moore’s Sleep Is Shattered (April 19) and Mackey’s Aluminum Flowers (April 20). Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez will feature JIJI as soloist, and Frank Zappa’s G Spot Tornado, with all of the guest artists, Other highlights will include Gottardo as soloist on his Concertino for Guitar and Orchestra and Mackey’s Turn The Key, with composer as soloist. Also, there will be Falling Through Time: Music from the 1300s (arranged by Gore and Robertson, with Gore as soloist) and Beatlerianas (From Yesterday to Penny Lane) (arranged by Leo Brouwer with Ossig on guitar).

Guitar students, teachers and enthusiasts are encouraged to check out the daytime Abravanel Hall events on April 20. At least 16 area guitar vendors will set up in the lobby for a free Guitar Gear exhibition, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. An afternoon workshop pass (available for a nominal registration fee of $20 which includes all five short workshops) will include Learn a Led Zeppelin Tune with Gretchen Menn, Improvisation Techniques with James Moore, Sound Design for Electric Guitar with Joe Gore, My Journey from Rock Band to Concert Hall with Steven Mackey and Pre-Concert Chat with David Robertson & Steven Mackey. For tickets and more information, see the Utah Symphony’s Guitar Celebrations webpage. 

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