Classical between the cracks

A local six-stringer thrives between the genres.


Kendall-Jackson Music Hall 3 p.m. Fri., Aug. 31

BUMBERSHOOT'S ALWAYS had an erratic relationship with classical music. One year it will feature the Kronos Quartet; another, early music. One year the promoters will set up a designated Classical Stage with everything from Bach to computer music, but the next they'll only offer a local semiprofessional string quartet in the Sunday morning graveyard shift. You certainly can't accuse Bumbershoot programming of excessive predictability.

But it does have one strength: Bumbershoot provides a home for musicians who prefer working in the gray areas between genres—explorers for whom a cut-and-dried label like "classical" would be too limiting. Seattle guitarist Michael Nicolella grew up with rock and never left it behind, even as he excelled in classical guitar studies at the Berklee School of Music and at Yale. His hour-long recital will be half acoustic, half electric, with a couple centuries of repertory represented, from a little 19th-century dessert piece by Fernando Sor to a new work of his own, "Surfacing Through the Mire."

Some of the works on his program will draw from both worlds, like the tango explorations of Astor Piazzolla; some will resemble a flashy, funky toccata, like "Open Up Your Ears" by Portland's Bryan Johansen. Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" for multiple guitars (Nicolella plays one part live against his own prerecorded performances of the other parts) is a landmark of the concert-music-for-electric-guitar repertory, just as Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" epitomizes the rock guitar-god tradition.

Nicolella, like most classical guitarists, is a great friend to contemporary music, always searching for, and asking for, new work. On his desk now, waiting to be learned, is a piece by the Degenerate Art Ensemble's Joshua Kohl. Another commissioned piece by sonic saboteur Chris DeLaurenti is in progress. For his Bumbershoot recital, Nicolella will also play "Eleven" by Tom Baker, a guitarist and skilled colorist with an impeccable ear for the instrument's sonic and expressive possibilities.

Nicolella recently completed a guitar concerto supported by a grant from the King County Arts Commission and is shopping it around to local orchestras. He's also looking ahead to a Benaroya Hall concert next spring; he plans to include, as usual, works written by and for him for both electric and acoustic guitar, as well as some of his own transcriptions of Bach cello suites.

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