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Recharging, not resting on laurels

The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet capped 25 years of experimentation with a Grammy win. Still, it's time to take a breather.

April 20, 2005|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

This year, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet has attained two milestones: its 25th anniversary and its first Grammy Award. So how is it celebrating? By going on sabbatical.

"It seems almost ludicrous," founding member William Kanengiser said last week. "OK, we win a Grammy and then we take a year off. But it's actually playing out very nicely. People who have called for bookings have said, 'Oh, OK, we'll wait until March next year.' "

The quartet needed the break, Kanengiser said, because of pressures from constant touring.

"It came to a head about a year ago. I was concerned, actually. I wondered if the group was going to split up. But we came up with the solution: OK, if we take one year off, that will be enough for us to recharge our batteries, to do what we need to do, to cleanse and purify, as it were.

"But we wanted to go out with a sort of a bang. So we thought, 'Let's do a concert in L.A.' We didn't have any other dates booked here this year."

The upshot is that local audiences will have one more chance to see the ensemble before its hiatus, Friday at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.

Formed at USC in 1980 under the mentorship of guitarist Pepe Romero, it originally consisted of Kanengiser, Scott Tennant, John Dearman and Anisa Angarola, who left in 1989 to form her own -- as it turned out, short-lived -- group. Composer-guitarist Andrew York took her place. The others remained.

"I don't think any of us arrived thinking, 'I'm going to be a member of a good guitar ensemble,' " Kanengiser recalled. "We just came to learn at the feet of the master. We were enrolled in a class called Guitar Ensemble, it was required, and in a merely arbitrary way, the four of us were put together."

But they were soon on their way. In 1982, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs underwrote a tour by the four to schools in rural Mexico, where they played 48 concerts in five weeks.

"It was the ultimate baptism of fire, but it was such fantastic work," Kanengiser said. "I learned how to speak Spanish in five weeks, and we learned how to be an ensemble in five weeks."

They first called themselves the USC Guitar Quartet but changed the name in 1987 after they graduated and their professional career took off. They also went on to make 12 albums, the last of which, "Guitar Heroes," won them their Grammy for best classical crossover album.

From the first, however, they faced a severe obstacle. As opposed to the wealth of works for string quartet, there was only a handful for guitar quartet. But they solved the problem by creating a repertory -- through arrangements, commissions and composing pieces themselves.

"We have a substantial output of material now," Kanengiser said. "I'm actually a little proud of that."

Their early records were fairly traditional, made up of Spanish and Baroque music. But they also began expanding into Americana, contemporary and world music, a trend encouraged by their second label, Sony. (They now record for Telarc.)

"The whole idea of exploring world music was very fascinating to us," said Kanengiser. "It took us two or three records to get that out of our system."

They also had to get their origins out of their system. Although inspired by Romero and the quartet he and his brothers and father formed, they felt they had to depart from that model.

"In the Romeros, Pepe and his brother Angel -- when he was in the group -- were definitely filling the role of first and second violinists," Kanengiser said. "We may have started out that way, but especially when Andy joined the group, there was this clear decision to be as democratic as possible.

"It was partly due to the egos of the group -- no one wanted to be second fiddle -- but also because we realized that one of the strengths of a guitar quartet is the very fact that we can be democratic about it.

"We also had to discover who we were, which is, we're Americans. We're not a group of Spaniards, and we didn't grow up in a Western classical music environment. We grew up with the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny and all these other artists."

Everyone in the quartet plays the same kind of instrument except for Dearman, who has a seventh bass string that allows him to go about a fifth lower than the standard guitar. But "what that's forced us to do is be as creative as possible," Kanengiser said, "to find ways to seemingly extend the range of the instrument, to extend its sonic possibilities."

As he and his fellow players prepared to take a breather, he said the ability "to make the entire group think almost as one person" was the legacy of a quarter of a century together.

"It's just climbing up a very long staircase. You take one little step at a time and then when you turn around and look back, you see, 'Wow, I've really gone up a lot.' "


Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

Where: Wilshire Ebell Theatre,

4401 W. 8th St., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Price: $25 to $45

Contact: (800) 595-4849;

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