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Music review: John Williams at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts

October 21, 2010 |  2:38 pm

JohnWilliams In days of old, Los Angeles hosted many of the world’s great classical guitarists — including the upper echelon, still-evolving John Williams — at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. Out of the presenting game since the mid-’90s, that hall’s absence is still felt, especially for guitar fans. But Williams’ concert, Wednesday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, conjured up memories of the Pasadena haunt, given the Cerritos venue’s appealing blend of welcoming acoustics, warm wood surfaces and relative intimacy amid the hall’s grand upward sweep.

On Wednesday, Williams, now 69 and sounding characteristically and fully on his artistic game, took aim at the fertile but under-acknowledged  guitar music motherlode of Latin America. Central to the compact survey were dazzling pieces from Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, Cuban Leo Brouwer and Paraguayan Agustin Barrios Mangore. Also in Wednesday’s mix was a jubilant short piece, ”O Bia,” by the late Cameroonian guitarist-composer Francis Bebey and a few tasty morsels by Williams himself.

Although not generally associated with Villa-Lobos’ famed five preludes, this program's closest thing to core repertoire, Williams played them with revelatory cleanliness and insight. From the poignancy of the third prelude — one of the single most beautiful pieces in the guitar canon — to the other alternately rugged and melodic preludes, Bach’s influence mixes with Brazilian impulses, uniquely guitaristic effects and dreamily atmospheric passages. Williams nailed them, perhaps unsurprisingly.

A related-yet-different mixture of Euro-Latin American ideas, of folkloric materials and well-placed dissonances, mark Brouwer’s commanding “El Decameron Negro,” dedicated to guitarist Sharon Isbin and played here with supple boldness by Williams. The guitarist has long championed the music of Mangoré, more conventional and Euro-centric  than that of Villa-Lobos and Brouwer. Williams devoted much of the second half to the Paraguayan’s works, from the Baroque-esque “La Catedral” to the romantic wafting of waltzes and the sweet lilt of “Sueño en la Floresta.”

Closing with an encore related to both this evening’s proceedings and Williams’ rightfully acclaimed, Venezuelan-themed 2003 album “El Diablo Suelto,” the guitarist played his take on Antonio Carillo’s bittersweet classic “Como Llora Un Estrella.”

Post-Dudamel, Los Angeles knows something of Venezuelan music, and, thankfully, plenty about the clean-burning expressive mastery of Williams’ guitar. 

-- Josef Woodard

Photo credit: Janusz Kawa.