Café Concert: Benjamin Verdery

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Behold the many sides of Benjamin Verdery.

Seated in the WQXR Café with his baritone guitar in hand, Verdery lets introspective pieces by Bach and Randy Newman spill forth with a hushed introspection.

But speaking behind a microphone, Verdery becomes garrulous and animated, expounding on squeaky strings, the music of Elvis Presley and teaching in the age of YouTube.

Verdery is nothing if not steeped in the world of classical guitar: he travels the globe appearing at specialized guitar festivals, delivering week-long master classes from Maui to Amsterdam, and overseeing the guitar department at Yale University, a post he has held since 1985. His website contains the requisite sections devote to instruments, gear and teaching tips.  

Verdery has a populist streak too. As artistic director of the guitar series at the 92nd St Y, he curates a series of guitar recitals and performs there himself, as he will on Thursday in a solo concert of works by Albeniz, Bach and Ezra Landerman as well as arrangements of songs by Prince and Presley.

Adapting pop songs for the classical guitar, Verdery says, isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. He says that an arrangement like “Kiss” by Prince (listen above), is conceived as a kind of collage.

“I generally gravitate towards something that sounds really exciting and cool on the classical guitar,” he told host Jeff Spurgeon. “With the Prince, who doesn’t want to do that?” Verdery will transcribe bits of the tune, then adapt the bass line or the drum part into a thicker accompaniment parts. “There I have to do some composing because I’m not singing. It’s so joyful.”

Verdery ends his Café Concert with "In Germany Before The War," a 1977 song by Randy Newman inspired by the Fritz Lang film M, which featured Peter Lorre as serial killer Hans Beckert. Newman has said the brooding song was intended as a metaphor for a nation about to enter a period of horror and transgression.

It’s finding unlikely songs like this or working with younger composers that seems to keep Verdery going. "The astounding thing is the instrument still fascinates me,” he said. “As you get older pieces seem to grow with you, especially the great ones.

“[Pianist] Dinu Lipatti said, ‘You don’t pick pieces, pieces pick you. As you go through life, even the simplest pieces can mean so much. You’re always humbled – by both the instrument because it still sounds fresh and unusual – and by the music.”

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Text & Production: Brian Wise

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