Tidewater Classical Guitar Society: Matt Palmer
January 26, 2018, Robin Hixon Theatre
Review by John Campbell

Matt Palmer plays guitar like no one I have ever heard before. This was not a greatest hits show for his instrument. He closed his eyes and let the audience dial down the energy from our busy world as he invited us to focus on one comfortable young man and his guitar, and all this without words. Very gently, with quiet, spectacular fret work, he opened with Fantasy on “Crimson Moon,” a Russian folk song set by Sergei Rudnev (b. 1955)—"one of many contemporary Russian guitar composers." Other pieces we have heard by Rudnev played by Palmer include The Old Lime Tree and Fantasia for guitar solo El Día de Noviembre.

This is not the first time we have heard Matt Palmer play guitar. In August, 2017 at Mac and Carol Simons' home in Virginia Beach he appeared with Tanya Anisimova in concert with an audience of 35 guests. Ms. Anisimova is a long time musical friend of the Simons. They had listened to a pay-per-view concert and decided to have them give a live performance in their home for friends. A piece by Mikhail Vysotsky (1791-1837), Ty podi moia korovushka domoi (loosely, Go home to your cat), was a simple melody made complex by a busy left hand sliding or walking up and down the frets as the tempo accelerated.

Here he paused to stretch the top string before he played the Chaconne by J.S. Bach from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 for solo violin. The Chaconne is as long as the preceding four movements. It consists of a gigantic set of interconnected variations derived from a simple four measure bass harmonic pattern. The beginning has a grave majesty of 32nd notes that rush up and down as if one run will trip over the next. There are tremulous arpeggios that hang almost motionless and a very beautiful D major section. It was as if the guitarist were channeling this music from a far dimension. Plucked strings and crisp notes all added to a completely satisfying experience.

A brief intermission was followed by El Decameron Negro by avant garde Cuban composer Leo Brouwer (b. 1939). This 1981 three-movement piece is a dramatic telling of a West African folk tale of war and love through musical patterns and gestures. The opening section, El Arpa del Guerrero (The Warrior's Harp) offered a melody whose beauty could break your heart. Huida de los Amantes (Flight of the Lovers) was percussive before it became meditative and Ballada de la Doncella Enamorada (Ballad of the maiden in love) offered flowing melodies in an open exploration, returning to lyricism but with abrupt chords. The lyrical end left me with a smile of satisfaction.

Turning to contemporary Brazilian composer Dilermando Reis (1916-1977), we heard Two Waltzes. Se Ela Perguntar (If She Asks) had me swaying, but only in my mind, while Una Valsa e Dois Amores (A Waltz and Two Lovers) was a lilting pop sound of great loveliness. To quote Mr. Palmer: “that guy had it bad for someone.”

Matt Palmer closed the program with Sonata Mongoliana (1986) by Štepán Rak (b. 1945), a fiery display of the guitarist's technical skill in a work that is both daring and expressive. It is based on many treatments of tremolos, those trembling or quivering fast repeats on a single note or the alteration of two notes to create tension and excitement. The pentatonic themes of Mongolian folk music are evocative of legends and landscapes of that faraway land. The speed and percussion of his playing left the audience breathless. As Sam Dorsey expressed it: “Matt shreds!”

His encore was Tom Waits' I'm Still Here. He spoke of Waits' rough voice as he quoted a favorite line, "You haven't looked at me that way in years.” The melody plays on the same emotion again and again.

Matt plays a custom, handmade guitar by luthier Michael Thames and is Director of Guitar Studies at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland and Coordinator of the Eastern Shore Guitar Festival and Workshop held each October.

More information about Matt Palmer and his CDs can be found at

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