Making the Connection: Fred Hand and Carlos Barbosa-Lima

by Mark Greenberg
September 2004

Carlos Barbosa-Lima and Frederic Hand, guitars
July 8, 2004
New York Guitar Seminar
Mannes College of Music

In music, as in sex, or politics, or business (and what about writing?), connection is everything. But let’s keep this clean, shall we, as my friend Carlos Barbosa-Lima might say, and just talk about music.

Even in limiting the discussion to music, there’s plenty to talk about. There is, first of all, the tangible, palpable, visible connection of musician to instrument. Next, there is, or should be, connection to the music — its style, period, and the particular piece itself. Then, there is the more elusive connection of musician to himself or herself; of being in and of the moment — known in the trade as “being on.” All of this adds up to connection with the audience.

Carlos Barbosa-Lima’s performance on July 8 as part of the Fourth Annual Guitar Seminar at Mannes was a superb example of a virtuoso guitarist connecting with the greatest masters of the guitar. Arguably there are guitarists who can play Barrios’ “Tu y Yo” as well as Barbosa-Lima (Antigoni Goni, for one, comes to mind), but no one on this planet can play “Las Abejas” with equal style. Through Isaias Savio, and back to Barrios, and beyond that to Tarrega and Sor, Barbosa-Lima connected to the grand tradition and showed the staggering abilities that can be brought to bear in performance. Seeing Barbosa-Lima play on this magical evening was watching a performer with godlike abilities. Barbosa-Lima sees everything, knows everything, can do, and does do, everything. The bass line boogied with wonderful rhythmic drive. The inner voices (two? three? four? five?) interwove this way and that. And above the entire fray of making music, Barbosa-Lima thinks nothing of showering an array of harmonics that sparkle like stars spread out across the firmament.

Technically, Barbosa-Lima plays with a wonderfully pliant and sensitive tone, but he has the light touch of the South American school. Though he can certainly make a guitar sing, his emphasis is essentially rhythmic.

Fred Hand, on the other hand (some pun intended), represents more of a Central European style of playing. Like other students of Bolotine — and Mannes in the ’70s — he has a far heavier hand. The emphasis is decidedly on an achingly emphasized melodic line. Though both guitarists are versatile, jazz-oriented performers, Barbosa-Lima loves shifting around barred positions. Hand, on the other hand (sorry, still can’t resist), loves to write chords around open strings and is particularly fond of overrings. (Still Baroque after all these years, eh what Freddy?).

Each style carries its own advantages and disadvantages. Barbosa-Lima’s lighter, more mobile touch lends itself to a wider variety of styles, but is in its own way less personal. It also lends itself to easier editing and correction.

But, while it is true that god knows everything, sees everything and does everything, god does not feel everything. That’s why he needs us. I hope Carlos will forgive me for saying that though his connection with his audience at Mannes was total, he does not dig as deeply into himself as Fred Hand does.

No classical guitarist can ever be an extrovert (Ben Verdery comes closest). Even the loudest guitar — a Smallman or a doubletop Dammann — cannot blow an audience away with sheer sound. The classical guitar needs, and sometimes gets, amplification for that. Rather, what has to happen is that at some level, and in some way, a sufficiently strong connection has to be made so that the audience is drawn into the guitar and is made to surrender complete attention.

Carlos Barbosa-Lima’s supreme musicianship and virtuosity are one way this may be accomplished; another is through more introspective playing. This time, I hope Fred Hand will forgive me for saying that while he is surely a great musician, one does not come away from his performances struck by blinding virtuosity. Rather, his “technique” is so much at the service of expressive demands that it is entirely self-effacing.

Introspection on six strings isn’t easy; the guitar can be self-lacerating both literally and metaphorically. Still, it is an old and honorable tradition, practiced brilliantly by Hand’s mentor, Julian Bream, one of the great tormented face-makers in the history of the instrument, and in the long ago and far away of the lute, by that patron saint of melancholic pluckers, John Dowland. This digging down into oneself is a wonderful, though dangerous, way to play; at its best it establishes a spiritual connection between player and audience that, as the poet (that would be me) might say, joins them heart to heart.

So here’s to both ways of playing — the inner and outer — and here’s to two great masters, guitarist’s guitarists both of them — Fred Hand and Carlos Barbosa-Lima. The more one knows about the guitar, the more one admires and respects their respective accomplishments.