Though Chopin is supposed to have said that nothing sounds lovelier than a guitar save two guitars, quantity and quality usually vary in inverse proportion in the guitar world, as elsewhere. Generally, the more guitars involved in a performance, the weaker the playing and the music.
Or at least that has been the case. Within the last decade, however, there has been a tremendous proliferation of guitar ensembles, from duos to guitar orchestras, developing exciting new repertory and high standards of performance.
One of the leading forces in this boom has been the Amsterdam Guitar Trio, which was formed serendipitously 10 years ago. Tonight the ensemble performs at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Saturday at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena and Sunday at Cal State Northridge.
"It doesn't seem to us like a jubilee," Johan Dorrestein said. "This happens to be our most busy year ever, though. That's a celebration in itself, and quite rewarding."
This season the Amsterdam Guitar Trio will give 125 concerts, 80 of them in the United States. The group, which won an Edison Award in 1985 for its recording of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," has renewed its RCA contract for four more albums.
To such has grown the career of an ensemble formed "quite by accident," according to Dorrestein. "None of us had an intention to start an ensemble."
Dorrestein, Olga Franssen and Helenus de Rijke were brought together by their teacher in the last year of their studies at the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam. With just one piece in their repertory, the three entered a local chamber music audition "more or less jokingly," Dorrestein reported.
And won. From the need to make good on that commitment came the Amsterdam Guitar Trio.
Asked what has kept the ensemble going, Dorrestein laughed and said, "Lots of compromise." Though he quickly added, "We have a very good mutual artistic understanding."
Much has been surrendered for the success of the ensemble. This season particularly, the three--two of whom have their own families--have devoted themselves to the trio full-time, giving up teaching even master classes.
The results have been satisfying, however. "We have been rather overwhelmed by the response to these 80 concerts," Dorrestein said. "For us, it has been sort of a test case. It turns out that the contemporary works go down very well."
That last point is crucial, Dorrestein believes, for a performance medium in the process of creating a repertory. In his opinion the continued success of guitar ensembles depends on contemporary music.
The Amsterdam trio is working on increasing its sparse, transcription-dominated repertory. Part of its contract with RCA stipulates that two of its forthcoming recordings will be of contemporary music.
One of these, which Dorrestein said is planned for mid-'89, will be devoted to music by Thai composer Dnu Huntrakul. The trio's local programs include examples from Huntrakul's "Collections," a five-movement group that is "so different from other pieces because it has that Eastern quality," according to Dorrestein.
These programs also feature "Miss Garcia Doesn't Ring Anymore" by the group's compatriot Chiel Meijering.
Among the attractions guitar ensembles provide composers are their varied sound possibilities and a means of overcoming the dynamic limitations of the solo instrument. Ensembles, though, have their own performance drawbacks.
"It's hard to be very precise," Dorrestein noted, "because the attack is much more defined," comparing plucked strings to bowed instruments.
According to Dorrestein, it is actually easier to make a career in a guitar ensemble than as a solo guitarist, in part because the fuller, more orchestral sonority of an ensemble seems more marketable. "Promoters are more likely to engage ensembles rather than soloists, unless," he conceded, "the soloist is world famous."
And that is a status that the Amsterdam Guitar Trio may soon claim.