Chamberfest: Stringing along with Benjamin Verdery, the mayor of Guitartown

Benjamin Verdery. Photo: Mitsuko Verdery

When the phone rang Benjamin Verdery was just taking a break.

“I’m just practicing away for the concert. I’ve got a lot to do,” he said. Indeed he does. The American guitarist, composer and educator is playing three Chamberfest concerts over three days starting July 25.

Verdery has been called the “Mayor of Guitartown” and “one of the classical guitar world’s most foremost personalities.” He is certainly eclectic and that’s most obvious in the second concert he is giving (July 26). It’s a night of music that ranges from Bach to Jimi Hendrix.

“It’s who I am musically. It starts with a piece of mine. Then I put together this triptych of movements of Bach from different pieces that all seem to click together.”

Verdery has been playing Bach since the beginning of his career. His father was a minister and he heard a lot of J.S. played on the church organ.

“Even as the rock and roll musician that I was until age 18, that music always compelled me. It drew me in.

“I have yet to find anyone who says I hate Bach. I know one person who said they didn’t want to hear Bach. That’s my oldest friend’s mother who was this genius chef and she said ‘Don’t play the Brandenburg Concertos when I’m cooking, they drive me crazy’.”

He’ll also demonstrate his new music chops with a piece composed for him by the American composer Ingram Marshall. It was written for Verdery about 20 years ago and it features electronic bits and pieces such as a digital delay and a loop. It also quotes Bach. As an aside he’s planning a record of different pieces influenced by Bach.

Then he will will play his own arrangement of Mozart’s Adagio in E, a piece the composer wrote late in life.

“The piece has become life-altering, like all the music I will play. It has a truth in it that you keep coming back to.”

For Verdery, playing music “goes through stages including the final one which is whether audiences like you playing it.”

He’ll finish with his version of three rock songs. He’ll play his arrangement of Prince’s Kiss (“Prince was a huge hero of mine. I’m still mourning his death.”) That’s followed by a version of Randy Newman’s In Germany Before the War. Newman is one of his favourite songwriters.

“Then I finish with music by one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix.” It’s a mashup of Purple Haze, The Wind Cries Mary and Voodoo Child.

“I grew up playing rock guitar with my idols being Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin and The Beatles and Jeff Beck.”

Verdery said he has never understood why there had to be such a dividing line between classical and rock and other forms of music.

“Today it’s not a problem but when I started playing Hendrix, people in the classical guitar world would get upset.

“We are finally at a stage where we are agreeing that whether you are a self-taught musician or classically trained what you have to say is of great value even if it’s in a three minute song. After all, Schubert wrote a lot of short songs.”

As a musician, Verdery writes music, “I play the music of my friends and I play certain older music that pushes me spiritually, emotionally and technically. I love old music.”

He also plays a lot of new music. It helps that he has friends at work — Yale University.

“I do teach at one of the best composition departments in the United States. The other thing about playing their music is very selfish on my part. I basically get a free composition lesson by them writing for me. I get to work with them, see how they think and ask tons of questions. It’s a win-win.”

He credits his musical openness to his father and mother.

“I was brought up in an extraordinarily liberal household.” The era he grew up in was important too.

“I’m 63. When I was coming up we didn’t have all the resources kids have today and we only had one or two radio stations. But they played everything. I grew up with this extraordinary variety: you’d hear Sonny and Cher, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, there was everything from light pop to quite profound.”

It helped that he grew up in Danbury, Connecticut within radio distance of the global cultural capital, New York City.

Another concert Verdery is playing at Chamberfest is with the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

“I had a student at Yale named Bryce Dessner who is a composer. From day I met him we just hit it off. He was in rock bands but also into classical music.

“I watched this guy conquer the world.” One day Dessner told Verdery that he had started “this band The National.”

Through it all the two have remained close. Even as Dessner’s band became more famous, he kept writing classical music. He had great success with his own compositions and has been heralded by Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

“I finally said, ‘Hey man, you have to write me a piece.'” So he wrote a short solo guitar piece.

And then Dessner, who had success writing for Kronos Quartet, said ‘Why don’t I write you something for guitar and string quartet.’ I said, ‘Yeah!'”

He threw Verdery a curve ball and wrote the music for a guitar ‘strung’ Nashville style.

Guitars like this are played at a much higher pitch than a normal guitar. Verdery had to go hunt down special strings that could handle the stress of being played that way.

“It gives the coolest sound.” The piece is called Music for High Strings. Dessner wanted the guitar to be able to heard through the string quartet. Verdery said the guitar can sound like a banjo or a mandolin.

Verdery says he has enjoyed working with the St. Lawrence Quartet.

“I am honoured to play with them. They are John Adams‘ go to quartet.

“Oddly enough I am almost like a rhythm section for then. I think the piece is a winner that will be in the repertoire but will require the guitar player to find the right strings.”

He says he hopes to record the work soon.

The final concert on July 27 will see Verdery playing in a massed guitar concert he has written called Scenes from Ellis Island. He’ll also play Boccarini’s Guitar Quintet with the St. Lawrence Quartet and a duet with Ottawa’s Louis Trepanier.

He wrote Ellis Island 25 years ago but today people are doing it now as a political statement of sorts, “which I am thrilled about.”

Verdery is also a man who likes to work with living luthiers. His website is full of the guitars he owns. He’s not a collector, he says, but he is “passionate about each one.”

“If you ask any guitarist they will tell you that you are the caretaker of the instrument for that time and you will pas it along.

When he buys a guitar he says “each has its own voice. You have to be inspired by it otherwise there is no point.”

He says he plays all of his instruments. “They all have different personalities and functions. They allow me to be creative and be inspired. Sometimes they get colds and get sick because of the climate.”

But when he performs he usually only has one or two instruments to hand.

Like is ties to composers and other musicians, the ebullient Verdery also has “the best relationships with guitar makers. The one I’m am playing now is made by Gary Lee. who lives in New Jersey. He’s a great friend. We are now on our third guitar together. The latest one he made me is four months old and I’m nuts about it.”

Guitartown indeed.

Chamberfest presents:

St. Lawrence String Quartet and Friends
With Benjamin Verdery (guitar) and Stephen Prutsman (piano)
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: July 25 at 7 p.m.

From Bach to Hendrix
Where: Ottawa Art Gallery
When: July 26 at 10 p.m.

Scenes from Ellis Island
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: July 27 at 2:45 p.m. This is free admission.

Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.