“Everybody wants to play in a group that has an international career,” says Luiz Mantovani of the Brazilian Guitar Quartet. “Some people think, ‘Wow, you go everywhere in the world. It must be great.’ But sometimes I just know the airport, the hotel, and the [concert] hall.”
The other three members agree. To live this life, they say, you have to want it. In the past ten years, the band has played over 300 concerts in the United States and only 10 or so in Brazil. While traveling, the group has to deal with all the annoyances one might expect — the long lines in airports, the late nights, the small hotel rooms. Finding familiar food isn’t easy either.
“We go to places where we just don’t know what to eat. Either we eat fast food or we eat food that we are not used to,” says Mantovani, the group’s designated English speaker. “If we’re touring for a month, we can’t be eating fast food every day.” At home in Brazil the group usually eats salad, seafood, and rice and beans. “So if we’re missing that, sometimes we go to a Mexican restaurant. At least they will have rice and beans.”
Negotiating the particulars of each venue requires flexibility as well. The day before their January 28 show at Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla, the quartet members visited the venue. After the visit, Mantovani concluded, “It’s definitely not a concert hall. They’ll be very close to us when we’re playing. They’ll see all the details. Even our breathing.”
According to Judith Oishei, the Athenaeum’s music director, the intimacy is the point. She gestures toward the Bach-Gesellschaft (the complete works of Bach) housed in a closed case against the wall in the music room and says, “When Bach wrote those pieces, he expected them to be heard in a room this size. He expected to see the performers sweat.”
Unfortunately, for some, on the evening of the show the sweat and other intimate details (including the two eight-stringed Brahms guitars — played by Mantovani and Everton Gloeden — and the fake fingernails on Tadeu do Amaral’s right hand) were visible only to big donors and special guests.
“It used to be that the first two rows were reserved for people who gave a certain amount of money,” says audience member Eilene Cummins. “Now it’s five or six rows.”
Her husband Arthur agrees that, although the venue is cozy and charming — with pretty wooden floors and shelves full of books and records — it’s also frustrating to hear but not see the musicians. “They need something where the [performance] stand is higher so everybody can see.”
The program began with “Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major” by Johann Sebastian Bach and segued into “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1” by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a Brazilian composer who, says Mantovani, is currently “recovering the status he had when he was alive.”
According to Tadeu do Amaral, the quartet member responsible for the group’s musical arrangements, “There is a natural connection between” Bach and Villa-Lobos. Bach, he says, was Villa-Lobos’s favorite composer, and “in this piece, he tried to find a connection between the music of Bach and the Brazilian folk music.”
After intermission the group played six pieces from “Iberia,” a suite composed by Spanish pianist Isaac Albéniz. The program noted that Albéniz’s suite was especially difficult to arrange for the guitar, and the expanded range of the eight-string guitars (developed by Paul Galbraith, a former member of the quartet) went a long way toward making it possible. At the end of both El Polo and Lavapiés, Gloeden dropped his arm to his side and let his head fall back, as though exhausted by the effort.
The Spanish “character” of the Albéniz piece made it an audience favorite. Audience member Louise Garrett, however, did not like the second half of the program. She likened it to jazz and said, although it was “soul-felt,” it was disjointed and reminded her of “the chaos of everyday life.”
Although the quartet members felt the venue room was too “cold” and took a while to warm up, they say it was a decent show.
“There’s not such a thing like you go offstage and say, ‘Yeah, I nailed it. I did everything right. My part was perfect,’ ” says Mantovani. “It doesn’t count for anything we are thinking of the group. So, when we go offstage, most of the time we are thinking, ‘Did we play well as a group?’ And that’s a little more complex.”