Bury St Edmunds Festival: Guitar

John Williams and John Etheridge, Together and Solo, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Thursday 24th May

John Williams and John Etheridge, Together and Solo, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Thursday May 24

This was as complete and as fulfilling a concert that one is likely to witness this side of the Apocalypse.

A pairing of classical guitar man John Williams and jazz-saturated John Etheridge on acoustic and steel-string instruments could have led to a Mitchell and Webb-style scenario where the only interest was the inherent humour to be found in their contrasting styles.

However, the sheer quality of their musicianship ensured this was not the case. As Williams said to me before the concert “guitar music can touch most cultures and there is a universality there”.

That said, neither did the concert collapse into a bland fusion of the two genres, as both performers didn't compromise their styles, but rather looked to opportunities to complement the other.

The chosen pieces were certainly widely sourced and ranged from the gentle languidness of Mitopa (a Madagascan number), through the delicately picked out melodies and jaunty harmonies of Sangara by the late Francis Bebey to Extra Time, an exhilarating original by Williams merging elements of a JS Bach prelude with minimalist phrasing, allowing Etheridge's improvisational talents to glow.

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Some Etheridge compositions were also included such as the wonderfully quirky and reverb-heavy Strange Comforts and the helter-skelter exuberance of the unexplained Monti's Casino.

The highlight was Peace, Love and Guitars written for the two musicians by American composer, Ben Verdery which twisted and turned through various moods and playing styles.

The only quibble I had was with the balance of the programme. With the exception of Etheridge's moody interpretation of Charlie Mingus' Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, all of the solo pieces were crammed together after the interval. Yet even within 'solo corner' the emotional beauty of the playing was undimmed. Williams' tribute to Bebey (Hello Francis) was cheering and affectionate, just as his performance of the Venezuelan standard Like a Weeping Star was intense and taut.

During that interval a note was thrown on stage to request that the two Johns play louder, suggesting those at the back were missing out. I felt for them as those around me were in a rapture unlikely to be repeated until the big Rapture itself descends upon us!

Paul Simon

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