The New York Times has called the acoustic guitarist Benjamin Verdery an “iconoclastic player.” Last week, this world-renowned contemporary musician and composer came to the College to perform a night of baroque, Bach-inspired pieces as well as his own arrangements of classic ’70s pop hits by Prince and Jimi Hendrix.
Last June, Verdery released a new record titled The Ben Verdery Guitar Project: On Vineyard Sound. This album, produced by his own label, Elm City Records, includes pieces written by himself and some of his colleagues at Yale, where Verdery teaches guitar. His career has taken him across the world to Korea, Amsterdam, the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as throughout the United States. He has also collaborated with a wide array of artists such as John Williams, Anthony Newman and Paco Peña.
The evening of mellow, varied guitar styles commenced with one of Verdery’s own compositions titled “Prelude & Wedding” (2004) that combined natural harmonics with themes repeated throughout the piece. Verdery’e casual attire — he wore a Hawaiian shirt for the performance — contributed to the peaceful and idyllic atmosphere the guitar created. Following this musical introduction, Verdery introduced himself to the audience, capturing our attention through his cheerful and humorous demeanor.
The subsequent pieces he performed were works inspired by Bach, either composed or arranged by friends of Verdery. The first was a Brazilian and Bach fusion arranged by Verdery’s late friend, Roland Dyens, to whom Verdery dedicated his performance. This gorgeous piece moved the audience, especially when tears came to Verdery’s eyes.
90-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein composed the second of the trio of Bach inspirations specifically for Verdery at his request. The two have been friends for over 30 years. Verdery had commissioned the piece months ago, but only last December did Bernstein complete it. Titled “Searching for a Chorale,” the composition meanders about disorientingly until it finally settles into a four-voice chorale, Bach’s infamous style.
The final piece of the trio is also a composition specifically for Verdery by Ingram Marshall. Before the performance, Verdery recounted a brief anecdote regarding the completion of the piece: He had been listening to the radio when Marshall’s brass sextet, Fog Tropes, came on, and he immediately fell in love. Fortunately, a friend of his knew Marshall and introduced the two to each other, whereby Verdery commissioned the piece “Soepa” (1999). Meaning “patience” in Tibetan, the piece inspired Verdery’s 2002 album of the same title. This piece was particularly interesting, as it has three movements with digital delays and loops which included prerecorded melodies to “create a texture that’s really ineffable.”
Following the intermission, Verdery performed two more of his own compositions. The first was titled “Now and Ever” (2007-08). According to Verdery, “Every American wrestles with our country’s history of slavery.” Through “Now and Ever,” Verdery aimed at the explication of that internal struggle. He dedicated the performance to his friend, Scottish guitarist David Russell. Afterwards, Verdery proceeded to perform selected works from his Eleven Etudes collection, which incorporates African and Spanish rhythms as well as hits on the guitar as if it were a drum.
The set would not be complete without a piece by Mozart. Verdery had been asked to arrange a piece by Mozart for a CD compilation of Mozart’s works by varied instruments. The decision to arrange Mozart’s Adagio K 540 was influenced by Bernstein, Verdery’s pianist colleague. Unfortunately, the piece posed a problem: It was too long to fit on the CD and needed to be trimmed. To reconcile this dilemma, Verdery told us, he had contacted the infamous composer through a séance, who proceeded to say that it was all right to edit the arrangement because he was no longer alive to care.
The final collection of pieces Verdery performed was Prince’s “Kiss,” Randy Newman’s “In Germany Before the War” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” all arranged for the guitar by Verdery. These pieces (among others) will become a record of his classical guitar arrangements of famous songs by famous singers and bands, including John Lennon, The National, Cream and Elvis Presley.Verdery ended with one last baroque piece: an encore of an arrangement of Bach’s Sarabande from his sixth cello suite.
Last June, Ben Verdery released a new record titled ‘The Ben Verdery Guitar Project: On Vineyard Sound,’ produced by Elm City Records. Photo courtesy of notesonthearts.com.