By BRUCE DENNILL
Guitar Wizards / Created by Corneille Hutten / Lesedi Theatre, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Following a simple format – essentially two different acts on either side of an interval – Guitar Wizards is perfectly suited to a room like the Lesedi Theatre, a couple of times the size of a big club, and with raked seating and a proper lighting rig. Showcasing the talents of South African duo CH2 (Corneille Hutten and Dirkie van Staden) and young Polish virtuoso Marcin Patrzalek, this show focuses on fingerstyle guitar – instrumental music (not as common an audience attraction, perhaps, as more conventional tunes with vocals) requiring a high level of technical capacity.
Sensibly, the show is split into two halves. First up are CH2. Hutten and Van Staden both play nylon string classical guitars, drawing inspiration from traditional Spanish music, including flamenco. Generally speaking, Van Staden handles the more percussive parts of the arrangements – bicep-fatiguing fast strumming and using the body of the guitar as a bass, snare or bongo drum. Hutten takes the leads, his hand poised, long-clawed, over the strings, which he (and Van Staden, when called upon) pluck, often so fast as to blur his fingers. Hutten is also an excellent host, mixing English and Afrikaans and humour and information in charming, accessible patter between compositions – there’s no narrative; just incisive, funny links and explanations. The duo plays both original compositions and their arrangements of pieces by classical composers of the past (who often wrote for piano) as well as more contemporary artists, including Faithless (hardly an outfit who come to mind where classical guitars are involved), whose hit Insomnia gets an acoustic overhaul.
The CH2 portion of the concert shows what can be done with a purely analogue set-up – strings, resonating soundboxes and human hands used to create melodies and rhythms. Patrzalek’s approach is markedly different. His steel-string acoustic guitar features multiple pick-ups and a mix of computer-driven reverbs and delays, allowing him to concoct soundscapes out of which the notes created by his intricate fingerwork leap and glisten.
His original pieces are complex and exciting, not conforming to expectations in terms of structure and rhythms, and covering a range of moods and tempos. Arguably, though, it is his arrangements of work by artists he reveres that is most impressive. His taste is eclectic, meaning that listeners are transported from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (Patrzalek’s version is hugely popular online) to instrumental reworkings of heavy metal classics by System Of A Down and Metallica, via music tinged with hints of Slavic folk tales about Baba Yaga the witch.
Patrzalek, though supremely confident, is never arrogant, displaying an amiable naivety entirely in keeping with his status as a matric scholar back in Poland – he’ll only finish high school in May. As Hutten points out when CH2 join the youngster for the finale, Patrzalek’s world-class skills are all the more impressive for his youth – the ratio of the hours spent practicing guitar to even eating and sleeping can’t be very much in favour of the latter activities.
Guitar Wizards underlines the pure entertainment value of fingerstyle guitar playing in a number of forms, thrilling those already in the know and rapidly educating those for whom this show is an introduction to the genres on display.