On entering St George’s Bristol, we were given a sheet of paper with a biography and the names of a handful of composers – the programme hadn’t been announced beforehand, and was only revealed during the concert by John Williams himself. He introduced each piece with a little context, varying from a piece’s personal relevance, to its historical background. Williams explained at the opening of the concert that he hadn’t chosen a programme because he doesn’t think there is “any point of detailed programmes” and finds that he “invariably wants to change it”.

John Williams © Kathy Panama
John Williams
© Kathy Panama

John Williams is known as the foremost ambassador for the guitar in the world. His career has spanned over 50 years and is now sadly rumoured to be coming to an end. His diverse approach to the guitar repertoire is truly unique. Williams announced he wouldn’t be playing Albéniz, and opened his eclectic programme with a Courante by 16th- to 17th-century German composer Michael Praetorius. He then went on to play a selection from Bach to Barrios and some of his own compositions. Explaining each piece before he played them gave depth to the concert and his own pieces were some of the highlights of the evening. A particular highlight was Hello Francis, which was dedicated to a lost friend of Williams and had a lively pace using traditional African rhythms.

The acoustics of St George’s lent themselves very well to John Williams’ guitar. His use of amplification of the instrument was somewhat questionable in this particular venue as it is already very sensitive, but it did mean that every tiny nuance in each note could be heard, and as he is used to playing with amplification, the sound balance was unproblematic. The amplification wasn’t distasteful and sounded fairly authentically acoustic from the back of the hall. The playing technique he used that was most attention grabbing, was the use of natural harmonics and the advantage of this being amplified was that although quieter than a regular plucked note, the harmonics were audible from a distance.

His movement on stage was fairly minimal, only standing up at the end of the concert and the interval. What captured me was his attention to detail. He uses his whole body to play but very subtly. He holds the guitar less upright than classical guitarists are taught, but uses his left knee to push the instrument a fraction up as he leans into a phrase. The majority of the time he will watch his left hand on the fretboard, but for more complex passages will look at his right hand plucking the strings. A fast variation in variations on Yuquijiro Yocoh’s Sakura (“Cherry Blossom”) was a perfect example of his dexterity in faster passages.

Williams’ control over the guitar makes his playing look effortless. His guitar had a mellow tone that rounded as it resonated whilst concisely defining each note. His technique of sounding notes equally regardless of whether they were plucked, strummed or merely tapped, was demonstrated particularly well in another of Williams’ own compositions, Stepping Stones. It had multiple layers of arpeggios bass and melodies that jumped over octaves.

Overall, this concert was definitely not one to be missed at St George’s and was nothing short of a great success. A loudly applauding audience enticed Williams out to play an encore of Figueredo’s Los Caujaritos before he came back for his last bow with no guitar in hand to a standing ovation. This was a memorable and fulfilling night, not to be forgotten any time soon.

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