John Wiesenthal visits the club, May 11, 2008


John Wiesenthal

On May 11, 2008 John Wiesenthal played for the Rochester Guitar Club at The Mez. By arriving about an hour early I was rewarded with an opportunity for conversation with John before the show, getting to ask a few questions, and obtaining a list of the composers he would play from, as well as some of the key influences on his playing:

  • Rodrigo Riera — (Venezuela)
  • Gregory D’Alessio — (New York), one of the founders of the original Guitar Society of New York and his mentor, who introduced John to Riera.
  • Antonio Lauro — from Venezuela (Natalia Venezuelan Waltz No. 3)
  • Heitor Villa — Lobos’ — choros
  • Agustin Barrios — Maxixe and Danza Paraguaya
  • Gentil Montana
  • Luys Milan — 16th century Spanish doctor and composer
  • Fred Noad — one of John’s instructors; John also studied with Emilio Pujol (Spain)

Before the presentation we heard some Club-related announcements: Kinloch Nelson thanked James Rowe, owner of The Mez and reminded us about the upcoming event. Kinloch also announced that we were raffling off event-long passes for the upcoming Rochester Jazz Fest, with proceeds going to help James and the Mez. The drawing will take place on June 6 at our Harmony House concert, where we will showcase our first four presenters: Petar Kodzas, Deborah Fox, Mir Ali, and Jerry Preston, with a variety in their performances ranging from Renaissance lute to very modern hammer-on guitar techniques.

James Rowe, owner of the Mez, introduced himself to the audience and spoke about his plans for the near future. Next weekend’s event, the Mezapalooza will feature roughly thirty-five performers. This is a three-day festival featuring artists, sculptors, performance artists and more. Tickets are $10/day or a weekend pass for $20. All tickets include a half sandwich and a cup of soup. James is very enthusiastic about setting up a tradition in the neighborhood, and he described the event as the first Mezapalooza.

Kinloch returned briefly to outline a few more RGC topics including the choice between Sunday or Monday evening for our meetings, which is now on our website for a vote. Also, we are having Muriel Anderson play in concert in September. Kinloch then introduced John Wiesenthal, mentioning that he is the inventor of the Bird of Paradise capo, was taught by Pete Seeger, and is currently chairperson of the Guitar Department at Hochstein. John started the rock band Blue Oyster Cult, also plays squash, South American guitar music and was a founder of the Guitar Society of Rochester.

Meanwhile The Mez had become packed, necessitating extra folding chairs to be set up in the middle of the room to accommodate a crowd including Rochester Guitar Club members, John’s students and friends, and many others.

John joked a bit about how he got into playing guitar: “...seems like everything else I’ve done people have yelled at me for; when I played guitar folks pretty much left me alone...” He mentioned growing up in the movie studios his father was involved in, “surrounded by wonderful and interesting people with talented self-absorbed parents... We three kids were smart enough to not get in trouble so we were left alone. I was always pretty good at music and attracted to it....” John’s first instrument was violin, followed by trumpet, French horn and others. At age twelve at a summer camp that was part of a USC extension program with a big arts program and strong links to the arts community, he found himself “in an environment with kids who were carefully nurtured in drama, etc. They already knew how to study scripts. Every morning we had a morning sing. I loved that! I was taught by notables like Brownie & Sonny... Pete Seeger was my first guitar teacher.” John advises those of us who aspire to better playing to get friendly with chords: “As a student one thing you can do is to learn a chord.... and another chord...”

John referred to his ties with the Guitar Society of Rochester, the predecessor of our present club, praising its members, especially thanking Richard Taglieri and Kinloch Nelson for encouraging “noncommercial, unaccompanied guitar - I love the guitar - it’s an intimate instrument that you hold to your heart and it sends vibrations to your core...” by the way “heart” in Italian is “cuore.”

John played one guitar during this concert, an Asturias flamenco model with a clear rich classical sound. His selections began with music from Spain to give us an idea of the styles that Cortez and other Spaniards brought to the New World with their vihuelas and other guitarlike instruments.

The program comprised of:

  • Six pavanes - El Maestro - Luys Milan, French court. Milan was a physician in Spain as well as a courtier. John played Pavanas 1, 2 and 3.
  • From the 20th Century, work of Manuel Maria Ponce, Mexico, written for Andres Segovia, John played preludes, Nos. 6, 1, 3 and 4, in that order.
  • Waltz No. 2 and No. 3 (Natalia) by Antonio Lauro.
  • Porro from the Second Colombian Suite by Gentil Montana, the last movement.
  • Agustine Barrios - Danza Paraguaya and Maxixe (Brazilian Tango)
  • Heitor Villa-Lobos - Five pieces, the Suite Populair Brazilian; each dance is called a choro: Mazurka-Choro, Schottische-Choro, Valsa-Choro, Gavotta-Choro, and Chorinho.

The last half of the program drew mainly from Heitor Villa-Lobos, who John explained is iconic, “...a character in South American music who stands out like an Easter Island sculpture...” As a young man Villa-Lobos played in cafes all over Brazil; he started with cello at around age 9-10. Heitor’s father was not a musician but there was music in the home. John related a few stories about Villa-Lobos, including how the composer traveled to Paris and was introduced by his publisher to Segovia. Villa-Lobos showed Segovia his preludes and Segovia claimed, “These can’t be played on guitar,” and story has it that Villa-Lobos wrestled the guitar out of Segovia’s hands to prove him wrong...

In honor of Mother’s Day, John asked the audience if there were “any mothers here today” and dedicated the Villa-Lobos Gavota, which he described as “sedate, calm, and courtly, a restrained dance,” to his own mother. He thanked us for coming out to hear him and spoke of his enjoyment at playing for us. He mentioned that as typical of Brazilian music, the Chorinho “should never be hurried...”

After listening to John bring this music to life, I left eager to revisit Villa-Lobos’ choros and maybe attempt to play at least a few of the simpler pieces one day, as well as to listen again to Luys Milan, whom I have heard played on the lute (by Deborah Fox and Paul O’Dette), as well as selections from the other composers John presented for us tonight.

John - Thanks so much for a beautiful musical excursion south of the border into unhurried times and milder climes! I know you don’t wish to be remembered solely for your capos - but I bought one at the concert and they are the best! John Wiesenthal can be reached through his capo website:

Deborah Ross

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