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Guitarist, composer shine along with string quartet

You had to wonder: Was there tequila in the punch that the Spokane String Quartet served at the end of its concert Sunday afternoon? Highly unlikely. But everyone I noticed did leave The Met with a south-of-the-border buzz, and more than a few people were moving out to a mariachi beat.

The cause was a nonalcoholic intoxication brought on by Michael Zearott’s “Concierto Mariachi,” brilliantly played by the quartet’s guest soloist, guitarist Steven Novacek, and a mariachi ensemble (string quartet, two trumpets, bass and piano) conducted from the piano by the composer.

Zearott, who lives in Clarkston, Wash., is one of those nearly hidden artistic treasures found here and there in the Northwest. Congratulations to the quartet’s first violinist, Kelly Farris, for making Zearott known to Spokane.

Zearott’s “Concierto Mariachi” was written in 1990 for Pepe Romero, but it has been performed only a few times since its premiere. That’s too bad. Audiences are missing a good time, a chance to hear some great tunes and experience mariachi’s deliciously shifty rhythms. And guitarists are missing a chance to add to their repertoire of audience-pleasing modern concertos.

The work does require an expert soloist. And Novacek is easily one of the best guitarists performing anywhere. He proved that in a set of solo pieces earlier in the program.

I was especially moved by Novacek’s performance of Leo Brouwer’s “Hika” – a memorial to his composition teacher, Toru Takemitsu. The work begins with a spare melody line that gradually takes on a more florid style with the guitar sounding a bit like the gakubiwa (a Japanese lute) or the zitherlike koto.

Novacek is noted for his songlike melodic playing in works such as the Brouwer piece and in piece by Albeniz and Reis. But the guitarist also showed his virtuosic side with the Brazilian guitarist Gentil Montana’s “Porro” with its hints of stride piano and North American ragtime. Novacek’s solo set ended in a blaze of fireworks in the finale of Carlo Domeniconi’s “Koyunbaba” Suite with its clouds of fast-moving figuration surrounding daring melodic leaps. Novacek simply didn’t miss.

Lest we forget that the concert was a presentation of the Spokane String Quartet, Sunday’s program began with a spirited, often sensuous, performance of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major. What an astounding quartet this is, the composer’s first and only essay in this medium. Sunday’s performance featured some very fine duet exchanges between pairs of the quartet’s players – violinists Farris and Tana Bland, violist Jeannette Wee-Yang and cellist Helen Byrne.

Farris, who has just retired from his position as the Spokane Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, will be taking a yearlong leave of absence from the quartet he founded in 1979. He will be missed.

But Farris tells me the first violinist’s chair in the quartet will be taken next year by Misha Rosenker, who teaches violin and viola at Eastern Washington University, a splendid young player.

 

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