Every summer Ben Verdery comes to Maui to give his classical guitar masterclass. You have to audition to get in. The final concert is free to the public.
“Are you going to the concert tonight?” asked my colleague who lives in South Maui.
“What concert?” It was a Wednesday, too early for the Saturday 10 August concert upcountry. Usually I’m the first to hear about a classical music concert on Maui.
“Ben Verdery. His students are playing in my church tonight at 7.”
The name needs no further explanation. When I first searched for “classical guitar” on Maui, as early as 2007, when I visited with Robert Bekkers to give our piano guitar duo concert at Makawao Union Church, I found the classical guitarist from Yale University who had been visiting Maui every single summer.
Summer is when I leave Maui for the rest of the world — all except last summer and this. I had completely forgotten about my quest for Mr Verdery.
I walked quickly to my office, worried that I might have missed the opportunity to finally meet the maestro. I searched online and only managed to find out about the 23rd July 2013 concert of Ben Verdery and his teacher, the composer and guitarist Frederic Hand at the Makawao Union Church. I wrote to John Olson to find details of Wednesday 31st July concert and immediately compiled a short invitation to send to 602 of my colleagues and students, everyone who had subscribed to an internal mailing list.
This concert was not advertised. It was a public performance of all 19 students who had auditioned and gotten accepted to the week-long program taught by Mr Verdery and associates, the 14th year since it began as an annual event — a well-kept secret, I concluded.
The famous church next to the Pacific Ocean, at the southern most tip of Maui’s beaches — Makena, as the area is called, has excellent acoustics. I had attended two concerts previously and firmly believe that it should be a permanent place for live classical music.
That evening, I saw the guitarists warming up outdoors, on the church grounds around sunset. Various sized shoes were lined up outside the entrance, an invitation for me to take off mine. The polished wooden floors looked and felt clean and shiny — “let’s keep it that way,” I whispered to myself. There was an atmosphere of familiarity and comfort, as though the parents, friends, and families of the guitar students had sat and watched the “guitar summer school” take place all week. It was not difficult to spot Mr Verdery, for he seemed the most relaxed of all.
The audience were not the only ones that decided to go barefoot. Every guitarist on stage, the composer / conductors, and Mr Verdery himself had bared their feet. [Note: I had tried to get everyone who performed and came to our house concerts in Utrecht, Netherlands to take off their shoes — but some people simply refused to!] There was a kind of nakedness and intimacy as well as respect for the owners and property when we sat without our shoes. Later I realized that barefoot was necessary to prevent unnecessary noise. The guitar is a soft instrument after all.
The entire masterclass, who called themselves the Maui Honu Guitar Orchestra, opened the evening with a piece composed and conducted by Oahu-based Ian O’Sullivan. Now teaching at UH Manoa, Ian O’Sullivan had studied with Mr Verdery as a summer student on Maui before winning a full scholarship to Yale for his Master’s Degree. The title of this guitar ensemble work, Waialua, is the name of an area in the famous north shore of Oahu. The piece is classical music with a Hawaiian feel. I would love to hear it again!
Thereafter, guitarists appeared on stage two or three at a time, taking their turn performing solo guitar pieces of Piazzolla, Dowland, Pujol, Koshkin, Powell, Domeniconi, Villa-Lobos, Hand, and others. Everyone, except the Pacific Ocean through the open doors and windows, quieted down for this guitar concert. This togetherness in silent attention reminded me of another occasion, the Katona Twins in Warmond, Netherlands. You really have to know guitar to know your manners — no rustling of the programme notes, whispering, or other movements that create unnecessary noise. You could literally feel everyone’s concentration at hearing every single note.
I write this as a pianist who has participated in a summer guitar course and who subsequently married a classical guitarist. The guitar, for me, is matrix algebra while the piano, like the harp, is a one-to-one correspondence. The guitar has always held a mystery for me. I will never forget that summer course at West Dean College in England, where students of all levels could participate. It was a week of daily technique exercises, ensemble class, individual tuition, and evening concerts in the country side of West Sussex. Both amateur and professional guitarists convened for gourmet cuisines and a fairytale-like existence. It was also the place where I asked myself, “if it’s musicians you’re looking for, why work with energy traders?”
Once upon a time, I heard guitar music every single day. Nowadays, I hear it via Facetime, telephone, CD, or radio. Thus it was a very special evening to hear 13 solo guitar pieces, 3 guitar duets, and 3 guitar ensemble works. It brought back memories of just how intimate guitar music is.
The last piece deserved an encore. Mr Verdery introduced “Start Now” as a piece originally for duo and then trio and then quartet. Towards the end, out of the blue, Mr Verdery whipped out a harmonica and joined the ensemble. It’s a piece you could tap to, dance to, and feel one with the music. Encore!