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Facing a Technical Knockout

Music: Guitarist William Kanengiser will tackle the difficult but magical 'Concierto de Aranjuez' with St.Clair.


Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" is the most popular and frequently recorded guitar concerto there is, and with good reason. Its infectious rhythms and melodies and its songful adagio have inspired many classical artists and even jumped the boundaries to reach such jazz greats as trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Chick Corea, who have recorded their own versions.

It's not an easy work, says guitarist William Kanengiser, who will play with the Pacific Symphony led by Carl St.Clair on Saturday at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

"Rodrigo leaves no technical stone unturned in it," Kanengiser said in a recent phone interview from Cincinnati, where he was vacationing.

"It begins with the most expected gesture on the guitar, which is strumming, which is a flamenco gesture. He makes frequent allusions to flamenco music in the rhythms, but he also has a healthy sense of scalar passages, counterpoint between the thumb and the fingers, quick arpeggios [and] a few cadenza-like passages give a sense of showing off.

"Then there's the famous duo with the English horn [in the adagio], which requires a real legato sense, imitating a sustaining instrument, which on a percussion instrument like the guitar is a bit of a magic trick. Hopefully, those difficulties will not be so evident in the performance on Saturday."


At the concert, Kanengiser will be amplified.

"I'm not a traditionalist at all when it comes to amplification," he said. "Every time I've played with an orchestra, I've amplified the guitar. If done well and tastefully, it doesn't detract.

"Segovia was very opposed to amplification, understandably. When he was performing, amplification was pretty bad. Now, technique is better. It won't sound exactly like pure, unamplified sound, but it will sound pretty good. I would rather have the audience hear me, with slightly distorted sound, than not to hear me at all."

A native of Orange, N.J., Kanengiser, 38, lived in California for a short time as a kid when his importer father was transferred here. The family moved back to New Jersey for the same reason. "But little by little, we all made our way back."


Kanengiser came back to study at USC, where he now teaches, having earned both his bachelor's (1981) and master's (1983) degrees there and winning the school of music's outstanding graduate of the year awards both years.

He started to play the guitar when he was 9.

"I was forced to take piano classes, but I hated it," he said. "I didn't have any affinity for it. But with the guitar, I wasn't one of those young kids dragged to music lessons. It was something I completely wanted to do."

He first played folk, pop and rock and later formed a rock band in high school.

"I had long hair and an electric guitar and all that. We played jazz and blues. But when I went to USC, I really focused on the classical things, studying for years and doing competitions."

There, he came under the influence of Pepe Romero. "He's my guitar guru," Kanengiser said. "He's arguably one of the fastest guitarists on the planet."

It was also Romero who made him understand the "mission of a performer and the spiritual nature of music."

While studying, Kanengiser teamed up with three school chums to form the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet in 1979. The quartet is thriving, playing concerts in Europe and Japan now, as well around the United States. The other members are John Dearman, Scott Tennant and Andrew York. They collectively won the outstanding alumni award from USC in May. "It was the first time they've given that award to an ensemble," Kanengiser said. They also just signed with Sony Classical.

"We all fight all the time because [quartet] repertoire is our biggest problem--and our biggest opportunity. We have to create it all, either commissioning it or arranging it or coming up with it somehow. Now, we're very definitely moving in a direction away from traditional classical music, toward world music.

"It's tricky. It's a question of how do we see ourselves. As a Kronos Quartet? As the Kings Singers? The Canadian Brass? There are all kinds of ways to do it. But we don't want to do anything that embarrasses us."


The quartet has taken a lot of effort and time, "sometimes at the expense of my solo activities. But things are going really well now. The guitar has gone through an amazing rebirth as a classical instrument due in part to Segovia but also to a lot of other people less well known outside of guitar circles. In this century, it has more pieces written for it by major composers than ever in its history.

"Part of this draw is not just to the beauty of the sound, but to all the connotations of the instrument to folk, to pop, to Elvis' hips and everything."

In fact, about 30 students are majoring in classical guitar now at USC.

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