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Their Tuxedos Have Gone Into Storage

The eclectic Los Angeles Guitar Quartet is at home whether playing the standard repertory or tackling Led Zeppelin and Count Basie.

July 21, 1996|John Henken | John Henken is editor of the just-published "The Hollywood Bowl: Tales of Summer Nights" (Balcony Press)

Postmodern ahead of the curve, the guitar has been an uninhibited eclectic throughout its history. Its Baroque repertory, for example, includes native Afro-Mexican dances as well as European court dances, to say nothing of drinking songs and military band imitations.

Recovering and extending that multifaceted heritage is what the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet is all about. One of the more important landmarks on the vibrant and influential Los Angeles guitar scene, the quartet has a strong sense of identity and mission.

"The guitar world is so fragmented now, with all these specialists and subgenres," says Andrew York, newest member of the ensemble. "It's really important to bring it all back together--I see it as a must."

The group has been heading in this direction since 1980, when the original members--Anisa Angarola, John Dearman, William Kanengiser and Scott Tennant--were all students of Pepe Romero at USC.

"We were in an ensemble class and Pepe sort of put us together," Kanengiser recalls. "It worked--not always smoothly. We did a couple of outreach concerts to represent the School of Music, and then we were asked to do a student tour, through the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department, and we had this grueling five-week tour through Mexico, playing for schoolkids. That was our first real tour, a trial by fire. Our tour bus was John's old Volvo, the Quartetmobile. We played 48 concerts in five weeks--short concerts, like 45 minutes, often several times a day."

Even as students, however, these guitarists were deeply concerned with goals beyond simply getting the next gig.

"At the outset," Dearman says, "some of us had different ideas about what direction the quartet could take, because there were different models out there. The [traditionally influenced] Romeros for one, but another model was the Amsterdam Guitar Trio and groups like the Kronos Quartet, who were having a lot of success playing modern music. I guess you could say we split the difference--not so much as a calculated compromise, but everybody's voice is recognized, and that created a certain diversity in our programs."

The group has gone through a reincarnation.

"Six years ago Anisa left and Andy came in," Dearman says, "I think that rather drastically changed the musical direction of the group, and perhaps reinvigorated it."

Although he had played with the quartet previously on some of its many educational outreach concerts, accomplished jazz guitarist York found he had much to learn when he was asked to join the group formally after substituting for Angarola on a tour.

"I was well aware of the group's history," he remembers. "It's difficult, joining a group at a later date, because the others paid the dues, they did that tour in Mexico. The first year, basically I didn't make my voice heard too much because I felt like the newcomer." ("He vents very well now," Tennant says.)

"I was always really impressed with the quartet's ensemble--with any plucked instrument, with its instantaneous attack, you know how hard that is to achieve. I had never been in a classical ensemble before, so that was an enormous challenge. There was no improvisation in those days, and you had to balance tone and volume."

The challenge proved mutual. As Kanengiser notes: "Andy sort of had to take a step toward the classical world, and we also, essentially, had to step toward the nontraditional world. It wasn't too hard for us--we all have pop music roots."

This ensemble conversation was taking place on the deck of Dearman's Silver Lake home. The four had just returned the evening before from concerts in Colorado, and they would leave two days later for a guitar festival in Portugal. York may have missed that epochal tour in Mexico, but upon joining he made immediate contributions to the lore of quartet logistics.

"When they asked me to join," York says, "I had promised my wife that we would move to England, and I couldn't go back on it. We actually worked it out so that right after I joined, we moved away for six months and had a flat in England. The initial period, we actually practiced by fax and tape and then met up for tours."

The quartet now travels frequently to Japan and tours Europe several times a year. Its regular summer homes are the National Guitar Summer Workshop in Connecticut and the Cal State Summer Arts program, held this year on the Long Beach campus. There the quartet caps an ambitious guitar and lute series with a performance Thursday at Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall.

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