The introspective solo concert presented by Ashmont Hill Chamber Music offered a welcome departure from standard guitar-recital fare.
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IN RECENT YEARS, presenting organization Ashmont Hill Chamber Music has broadened the scope of its recital series to include music that doesn’t neatly fit into the Western classical tradition, and the experience is much richer for that. A program of Bach mixed with North Indian music was one standout before the pandemic shut the recital series down, and last fall the group welcomed Iraqi maqam group Safaafir.
Guitarist An Tran didn’t arrive at his solo recital at Ashmont’s All Saints Church on Sunday afternoon with any unfamiliar instruments; two exquisite classical guitars made by Boston-based luthier Stephan Connor were his only luggage. But anyone who was expecting the standard guitar-recital blend of Bach and Iberian repertoire was in for a surprise. When Europeans brought the guitar to Vietnam, the country’s traditional music already featured fretted and stringed instruments, and over the 100-plus years since, several uniquely Vietnamese guitar traditions have flourished. Now, writes Classical Guitar magazine, Vietnam has become a classical guitar hot spot, and Tran stands to become one of its most prominent ambassadors.
The world is loud in comparison to an acoustic guitar. In the few moments before the concert began, several sounds shattered the anticipatory silence: a chair creaking as someone dragged it across the floor, a cough, a child outside in the hallway calling for his mother. Tran hadn’t even played a note, but already the ears were acutely attuned.
And over the next 80 minutes, give or take a few, he graced the small but robust Sunday afternoon crowd with a slew of pieces from his 2020 debut album, “Stay, My Beloved,” featuring arrangements of Vietnamese traditional songs and original pieces written for guitar by composers Nguyen The An and Dang Ngoc Long. When some enthusiastic children piped up during the finale of Nguyen’s epic folktale-inspired “Bamboo Child” suite, Tran took it in stride with a smile.
Whether playing a low pentatonic melody with his thumb while the other four fingers murmured over the higher strings, or tapping the fretboard to create a dulcimer-like sound, he executed every phrase with subtle, graceful virtuosity. Some sections of the “Bamboo Child” suite recalled Renaissance lute music; other melodies wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place had they been played on a fuzzy surf guitar. With its gentle ephemerality, the music invited introspection.
No program notes were provided, but Tran chatted briefly about each selection as he rested and tuned between pieces. His comments added even more emotional resonance to pieces such as Nguyen’s bittersweet and tender “Lullaby,” which the guitarist dedicated to victims of COVID-19 and anyone who had lost a parent; and the soft but relentlessly hopeful “Remembrance,” which the Berlin-based composer Dang wrote to support a fellow Vietnamese friend whom he said was experiencing a mental health crisis. Another high point was Dang’s piece “Rain,” in which Tran coaxed pinging tones that evoked the composer’s childhood memory of drizzles and downpours falling on the metal roofs common in Vietnam. The acoustically exquisite Peabody Hall allowed this intricate music to shine.
Tran mentioned candidly that his only other performance in Boston was 10 years ago, with a choir, but if Sunday’s recital was any indication, it won’t take another decade before he and his guitars return to town. In the meantime, for anyone who missed Sunday’s performance, there’s his album, which is worth 45 minutes of your time; listen on a rainy spring day, like the many that are surely just around the corner.