La Vita Dolce

by Mark Greenberg
July 2005

Giacomo La Vita, solo guitar
Christ and St Stephen’s Church
June 24, 2005

At this point in Mannes’s History, the College’s guitar majors number perhaps a dozen or two taught by Michael Newman and Fred Hand. Both teachers are brilliant players, and the level of pedagogy is very high. All the current students are fine players in the making; so small a department accepts only incoming applicants of evident talent and accomplishment. One of the great pleasures of being around Mannes (my son is a graduate of their prep department, and I’ve at times studied in the extension division) is watching the young players come up, progressing from journey-level, so to speak, to mastery and, in some cases, virtuosity. But in every generation of Mannes students, there are one or two who transcend even this, and acquire that ‘x-factor’ that makes for magical ability as a performer. And then, lo! The audience does not go to sleep, but leans forward and hangs on every note.

“No Guitarist Is an Island,” a piece about the Mannes Guitar Ensemble, briefly mentioned Giacomo La Vita as the current young magician-in-training. His thoroughly satisfying recital last night confirmed this and requires our full attention in an article of his own.

It will be useful to consider how such magic is made. True, La Vita has great chops, but he is too engaged a player to be considered a mean, lean playing machine. And then, though he can play plenty fast, there are those who are faster (or at least more frenetic). And, though he has estimable quality of sound, there are those who are more into gorgeous sound; La Vita is in fact far too rhythmically driven a player to pause and invest any particular note with more than its fair share of ravishment.

Rather, it is the balance among all these elements — lovely sound, impressive speed, great technical ability (but at the service of the expressive demands of the music) — that makes Giacomo La Vita so magical a player.

It’s obvious as soon as he takes the stage. He’s calm, unhurried, takes his time, He turns aside, tunes carefully. He’s composed, like my very favorite players — his teacher, Fred Hand, Roland Dyens, and Carlos Barbosa-Lima. For his first pieces, he plays the Prelude, Loire, Gavotte en Rondeau and Gigue from the 4th Suite for the Lute by Bach.

Yes, true, in Baroque times, preludes were used to tune up and warm up. And, in fact, even now, Fred Hand and Dyens often open with an improvisation that is a sort of a prelude, but they are composer-guitarists. They play their own stuff for openers; if they miss a note, it is their business, not yours, and you will never know the difference, but Prelude from the 4th Suite is everybody’s business. Everyone knows every note. Opening a program with it is risky, to say the least, and La Vita did not come off unscathed. I saw him play this piece faultlessly at Mannes a few months ago. Here, the performance had a few fumbles, but lo! — it made no difference. La Vita’s ability to project a sense of the long line of a work is terrific. As a result, no individual note counts for much. If La Vita hits a clam, “So be it” (as David Mamet would say), he goes on with his life. He’s not flapped or shaken because he is focused on overarching architecture, the long line of the music (as Aaron Copland would say), and piece after piece showed it.

In particular, the Gavotte en Rondeau received the best performance I’ve ever heard. La Vita’s phasing and crisp rhythmic articulation made for a stunningly clear and lucid performance. The Gigue, too, was a model of clarity, not to mention momentum.

Every time I’ve ever heard Giacomo perform, he has always performed Barrios’ tremolo piece, “L’Ultimo Cancion.” Imagine my surprise when I saw that on this program, he had substituted “Un Sueno en la Florestra.””Mark,” I said to myself (I call myself “Mark,” especially after a critically-timed pre-concert Corona), “Mark,” I repeated a lui meme, “I’ll bet you fifty bucks he plays ‘L’Ultimo Cancion’ as an encore.”

I’ve never heard La Vita play the “Florestra” tremolo piece before — it’s even longer and more demanding than Cancion — but I’ve heard his tremolo technique often, perhaps a half dozen times. It has developed tremendously over the years and is now a fast, solid, even singing voice. The performance was remarkable, not without its slight misadventures, but fully successful in engaging the heart of music and audience alike. Giacomo La Vita takes his place alongside Williams, Goni, and his hero, David Russell, as one of the few who can meet the emotional demands of this difficult work.

For equal toughness, the first half of the recital had earlier included the beautiful Walton Bagatelles, played with wonderful rhythmic snap (dig them Bartok pizzicatos!) but perhaps a bit less lyricism than I’d heard from him at the Mannes performance. In particular, the magnificent middle Bagatelle could have used a touch more warmth, but this is a minor quibble. These were fine performances on a most ambitious level of playing and basically caught the sense of the music most beautifully.

After intermission, it was Back to Baroque. Honesty compels me to admit that I hate Scarlatti; this music simply bores me to tears. The fact that every guitarist on the planet plays the same two or three pieces has never helped the situation. Sure enough, here was the Sonata in E Major K. 380, victim of amateur strummers for probably a century and a half. This was an ultimate test and La Vita passed. For first he played the Sonata in D Major, K. 491 (a rarer avis) with transparency and cohesion. It wasn’t at all painful to listen to such music; after that, the E Major, performed with wonderful deliberateness, went down easy after all.

Another La Vita specialty that is part of any of his programs is the fingerbusting (as Don Witter would say) Llobet Variations on La Folia. Here he did not disappoint. There is no concealing the fact that these require the services of a virtuoso who has mastered the gamut of guitar technique from tremolo to octave harmonic to legato solo for unaccompanied left hand (the right hand sits this one out on the top of the guitar, limp as a fish). As ever, La Vita played with stunning eclat. Virtuouso variations, of course, have a strong visual element to their charm. I could go on and on, but you would still not get the picture. You have to be there, and I hope you’ll get the chance, if you weren’t.

For closers, Barrios’ “La Cathedral,” also a work of formidable difficulty, came off very well, with perfect pacing and plenty of rhythmic drive in the last section. Four Villa-Lobos Etudes (Nos. 7, 8, 11,and 12) concluded the program. La Vita caught and realized the musical (and pedagogic) intent and spirit of each with fine technical skill (and without being boring). Quite a feat with which to conclude, one would say.

After very much applause, the modest Mr. La Vita acceded to an encore. With absolute deadpan humor, he announced, “J.S. Bach: Chaconne in D Minor.” Then, he played “L’Ultimo Cancion.”

Man, was I glad. Frankly, I didn’t have fifty bucks.