French guitarist Gabriel Bianco seemed to enter a contemplative state as he strummed the first bars of Renaissance-era composer Francesco Da Milano’s composition “Fantaisie.” He managed to enchant his viewers and get their concentration, as he brought back from obscurity the 16th-century composer’s lute tune.
Following up “Fantaisie” with renditions of “De Mon Triste” and “La Campagna,” the 26-year-old guitarist managed to capture the pieces’ stately and poetic character as well as their essence, a latter point that he emphasized by holding his guitar like a lute.
More pedantic hands might have brought out the compositions’ somewhat stilted Renaissance sounds. But Bianco combined deft fingerwork with the sensual sounds of classic guitar to keep the pieces from sounding too archaic. This was no mean feat, in light of the fickle Indonesian audience.
Da Milano’s pieces set the tone for “An Evening With Gabriel Bianco,” the guitarist’s recent recital at Jakarta’s Pullman Hotel. The show was one of the highlights of the Institut Francais d’Indonesie’s (IFI) annual Printemps Francais, a French cultural festival that is held annually throughout Indonesia.
The making of a classic guitar prodigy
“I started playing the guitar when I was 5 years old. It came naturally, because I grew up watching my father play classical guitar,” explains Bianco, who comes from a family of musicians.
He furthered his musical education at the Regional Conservatoire de Paris when he was 9, before entering the Paris Conservatoire de Musique at the age of 16 to study under classical guitarist Olivier Chassain.
“My time at the conservatory did much to shape my musical technique. Meeting a number of like-minded people also helped, as I and a number of friends from the conservatory also formed the guitar quartet Les Quatuor Eclisses,” says Bianco of the band, which is also performing at the Printemps Francais.
Bianco’s musical journey started in earnest after he graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with honors in 2008. Since then, his proficiency with the guitar took him around the world, as he performed in venues like Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Hall, San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, and the Auditorium of the Music Academy at Poznan.
Bianco manages to get under his audience’s skin by reaching out to them and sharing the background behind the pieces that he performs. The chemistry he builds with his audience also enables them to be receptive to his repertoire, much of which features largely unknown classical guitar numbers. But he admits that a bit more can still be done.
“I would have liked to stay around and derive musical influences from the places I visit. However, one needs to stay in an area for over a year to really get the musical influences from there,” he says. “Unfortunately I never stick around any one place for too long. But I’d like to change that one day.”
Drawing energy from the crowd
“My experiences playing around the world exposed me to different audiences.One of the things I noticed right away is how different they are from one country to another,” he says. “Audiences in the US are more likely to be loud, whereas those in Europe, especially among older people in their 50s or 60s, tend to be more reserved. What sets Indonesian audiences apart from the rest, however, is their youth.
“True to their youth, they’re more receptive to various kinds of music. There doesn’t seem to be the notion that classical music is for older people like there is in Europe,” Bianco notes of the audiences he has played for in Bandung, Semarang and Yogyakarta.
For his Jakarta show, Bianco took a page from their ardent spirit by getting into 19th-century French classical guitarist Napoleon Coste’s “Fantaisie Dramatique.” A piece describing a soldier going off to war, its first half, or “Le Depart,” features eager, martial tunes to convey the subject’s heady optimism and certainty.
The second half, or “Le Retour,” still waxed with lyricism. But the composition was marked by a somewhat somber sound to convey the soldier’s worldly wise point of view. Even then, the piece’s upbeat sound still conveyed the soldier’s idealism and eagerness to get back in the fray.
While one can view the composition as a metaphor for Coste’s determination to play his music again after breaking his arm, it can also describe the perseverance of Indonesian youth and their determination to hold on to their dreams.
Bianco then contrasted the tone with Agustin Barrios’s classical guitar piece “Julia Florida.” Evoking the sensual sound of classical guitar, the piece took on a sentimental and tender sound marked by its depth of feeling. Going on to “Choro de Saudade,” the tune changes into a more expressive but no less profound and emotional mood, an element Bianco captured by taking the more intricate notes. He then cast the tune against the “Valse #4,” which provided a contrast due to its stately, structured yet exuberant form.
Bianco’s varied repertoire took the audience through Niccolo Paganini’s “Grande Sonate Pour Guitare.” The little-known guitar piece features complicated techniques and flourishes that are a trademark of his better-known violin compositions. The opening “Romanza” set the tone with its intricate sound, which was frank and held nothing back. The “Andantino Variato,” though, was more upbeat. Featuring intricate fingerwork reminiscent of “Flight of the Bumblebees,” Bianco didn’t so much slip in and out of the notes as he wove through them. The tune also had much in common with Paganini’s violin pieces because of their frenetic sound, yet were marked by their stately and sublime touch.
Bianco contrasted the repertoire yet again by going into Bach’s “Sonata BWV 998” for lutes. The “Prelude” highlighted the guitar’s way of bringing a sensual contrast to the stately lute that the original was composed for; while the “Fugue” that made up the second movement captured the grandeur of Bach’s baroque music, it was also brought down to earth by the guitar.
Bianco then brought the evening to a close with Spanish classical guitarist Joaquin Turina’s “Sonata for Guitar.” It started off reticently and gradually picked up and grew more lively, from the “Allegro” and “Allegretto Tranquillo,” to the show-stopping “Andante.”
“I plan to release two albums later this year. One of them is an album I will make with Quatuor Eclisses, while the other is a solo recording that is accompanied with oboe,” says Bianco, who released his first album, “Guitar Recitals,” in 2009.
“Again, variety will be highlighted in the works. When I play solo, I have more room to create melodies, whereas when I play with a group I strive to reach common ground and have the same musical colors. On the other hand, I seek to find the contrasts in sounds and styles between the oboe and guitar.”
He adds that doing so will maintain the integrity of both instruments instead of compromising them, as happens when compositions of other instruments are adapted to guitar. But whatever musical direction Bianco plans to take, there is little doubt it will be worth checking out.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 5, 2014