Finding Theater in Guitar Music

About a week ago, I was able to go see an incredible performance of Pavel Steidl. I, of course, had heard recordings of him and seen a few videos on Youtube, but listening to those is never the same as it is live. When I watched the videos of him playing, and saw him mouthing the melodies as he played them, I wrote it off as just an unusual performance practice, like Glenn Gould and his vocalizing of the melodies as he played. But having watched Steidl’s performance live, especially during his Italian set where he flawlessly executed a musical dialogue that could have possibly taken place between virtuosi Paganini and Legnani, I realized (at least to me) that he wasn’t just singing the melodies, but rather he was turning this guitar pieces into mini-operas. The melodies or musical gestures became leitmotifs for characters of a story. This seemed exemplified as he altered the characteristics of the melodies through different tones and articulations. His facial expressions would act out the different characters and the moods they were to personify: whether they be serious or what looked to be a whiny, little brat.

The point of this article isn’t to write a review of Steidl’s performance, but rather to get other players to experiment with playing in this manner. The Classical era in guitar history attempted to show-off the guitar as a mini-orchestra (Giuliani’s Grand Overture), and perhaps at times would hint at an operatic style (Rossinianas). But in terms of executing this in a performance, I had never seen anyone exploit the different timbres of the instrument in this way, or so effectively. It changed the whole interpretation of every piece in the program. I haven’t been able to experiment with this idea of playing yet myself, but I offer a suggestion to anyone who reads this to give it a shot. Play the melody of whatever piece you’re playing, and try create a character for it. Experiment with not just playing it a standard manner, or a way in which one would expect. Then, do the same with other melodies that make up the composition. Finally, try find moments where you can make these “characters” to interact with each other in some kind of dialogue. This could add a whole new depth to even pieces we consider standards.