Los Angeles Guitar Quartet Debuts Metheny Commission in Denver


Pat Metheny (center) directs the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet in advance of their performance at the University of Denver on Oct. 20.

(Photo: Tara Stewart)

Many musicians have played Pat Metheny’s music over the decades, but few could say that he has composed something specifically for them. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ) got much more than they anticipated when they commissioned Metheny to write a classical work for them.

“We thought he’d write us something seven or eight minutes long,” LAGQ’s Bill Kanengiser stated. What they got was a 30-minute opus titled Road To The Sun, which the LAGQ premiered on Oct. 20 to a full house at the 1,000-seat theater in the Newman Center at the University of Denver.

Metheny first met the quartet when the members were teaching at the Crown of the Continent summer guitar camp in Montana a few years back. The idea of Metheny writing something for LAGQ came up, but due to the globetrotting guitarist’s busy schedule, the trail went cold. Then, in 2015, he created a window of time to dedicate to composing. Once he started, he said, the basic architecture of the piece easily took shape.

“Pat e-mailed us and said he had the whole road map and harmonic foundation of the piece completed,” said Kanengiser, “but assigning the parts was going to take him some time.”

Copious correspondence about traditional classical guitar techniques, new musical possibilities and the strengths of each LAGQ member guided Metheny in his orchestration. Ultimately, he crafted parts so specific to each player that, instead of designating numbered guitar parts on his score, he wrote the names of Kanengiser, John Dearman, Matthew Greif and Scott Tennant.

Of the title, Road To The Sun, Metheny wrote in the program notes, “I thought back to my trip up to Glacier National Park on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road the day after hearing LAGQ play live for the first time at a festival in Montana.”

Metheny’s gift for storytelling is ever-present in the six-movement instrumental epic. In it, there are detectable hints of his past work: the opening ostinato of “First Circle,” the intense strumming of “New Chautauqua” or “Facing West,” the upward-arcing linear arpeggios of “Missouri Uncompromised” and yearning chord changes like those found in “In Her Family.”

The piece is a masterful four-guitar reduction of significant musical signposts from Metheny’s odyssey. Throughout, his picturesque harmonic language seamlessly blended sequences of triads with dark and dense polychords. Plaintive melodies floated over implied Latin grooves, while elsewhere, bluesy lines were tossed between the players.

The LAGQ artfully supplied all the virtuosity and musical insight required to bring Metheny’s tale to life. The score demanded a stunning array of natural guitar effects, including tremolo techniques ranging from traditional melodic tremolo to Tennant’s flutter-strummed high-register chordal tremolos.

Rapid-fire antiphonal chord jabs on alternate eighth notes volleyed between the players highlighted LAGQ’s tight ensemble work. Dearman’s seven-string guitar extended the low register and had him fashioning bass lines beneath expansive chord voicings. But it was Greif who grooved on the 5/8 ostinato bass line that opened the fifth movement.

Metheny gave each player harmonized melodies as well chances to trade written licks with an improvised character. One movement devolved into aleatoric randomness that hinted at free-jazz with non-pitched percussive tapping, slapping, muted string strums, plucking behind the guitar nut and long, slow bass-string scrapes that sounded like jet planes.

The fifth movement ended in a frenetic rhythmic climax that fused rhythmic strumming and melodicism. In the introspective epilogue, Kanengiser and Tennant reiterated the rapturous theme from the first movement before the texture thinned for a dreamy finish.

“This is one of the hardest pieces we’ve ever done because of its length and dramatic scope,” Dearman said. “We had to find a new way of thinking and not rely on our usual approach to dynamic phrasing. We had to fit into Pat’s world, and that’s a high bar.”

LAGQ plans to record the piece in 2017. “This piece is a major addition to the guitar quartet repertoire,” Kanengiser said.

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