June concert – video and review
What a joy!
to have guitarist and composer José Luis Merlin close our season!
Jose Luis Merlin — wizard of the guitar
By Charles Atthill
Special to the Prospector
At the last concert of the InConcert Sierra season, Merlin’s wizardry was apparent both as performer and composer, in a program entirely of his own compositions.
Merlin dedicated the concert to the memory of Alex Johnson, son of local guitarist and composer Lou Johnson, who died at the age of 21 in February 2010, and opened with the premiere of “Oracion por Alex Johnson,” a poignant piece, which spoke of Merlin’s personal sadness at the loss of his young friend.
The acoustic guitar is the perfect medium for evoking emotion and memory, nowhere more so than in the “Suite del Recuerdo” (Remembrance).
“Recuerdo” is one of Merlin’s most enduringly popular works. The six movements draw dramatically on Argentine Musica Folklorica, capturing the rhythms and passion of his native country. The pulsing Zampa, the rural tango of Chacarera and the exhilarating Joropo contrasted delightfully with the pensive Evocacion.
Merlin plays a guitar by Spanish luthier Melchor Rodriguez, named “Merlin” for the sound he asked Rodriguez to create for him. His superb technique can shift in an instant from a fragile single-line theme to an ebullience of complex chords accompanying bravado multi-string flourishes. The magician’s illusion is optical as well as auditory. How is it possible to create such variety of sound from six strings, five fingers of one hand (yes, the thumb too), and the plucking, strumming and drumming of the other?
After last month’s Sierra Master Chorale performance of The Armed Man with nearly 100 performers, Merlin at first looked lonely on stage. There is just his intent, black-clad figure and the single but infinitely varying source of his sound. But then he draws you in, defying distraction, to marvel at his musicality.
“Composing,” he said, in the preconcert forum, “is a magical process.” And his magical creativity flowed through the rest of the program. The suite “A Ricardo Bertin” embraced tinges of Bach, flamenco flourishes, soporific hints of a zither, and high energy tango.
“Sueno con Caballos” (Dream of Horses) is an affectionate love song, the middle movement dedicated to his own horse. If he plays like this to his horse, how does he serenade his wife?
It was a program to demonstrate Merlin’s breadth: impressions of sound (bells, birds), of mood (the delicious Kiss of the Moon), of occasion (the rustic wedding of Bailongo Campero), of horses galloping (the driving Milonga rhythms of Cruz del Sud), Merlin’s exuberant encore.
It was as though Merlin and his guitar were one, like a singer whose expressiveness does not have to be channeled through any instrument. It was an absorbing and pleasurable afternoon.
Charles Atthill lives in Alta Sierra. He wishes he had learned the guitar. It would have been easier to carry around than his piano.