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Behind the Scenes

‘Giuliani’s Friends’ shows that guitar and piano can play well together

Ellyses Kuan and Robert Bekkers will combine their talents.

Kelsey Grousbeck

Ellyses Kuan and Robert Bekkers will combine their talents.

Guitarist Robert Bekkers and pianist Ellyses Kuan of Braintree are attacking convention in two ways in a fresh concert program of music by largely forgotten early 19th-century composer Mauro Giuliani, a peer of giants such as Beethoven, Rossini, Paganini, and Schubert.

The performers are not only challenging the neglect of a composer that Bekkers believes ranks with the “big names” among his contemporaries, but also the long-held prejudice against putting the classical guitar and the concert piano on the stage together.

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Entitled “Giuliani’s Friends,” the concert will be performed this weekend at both the James Library in Norwell and the South Shore Conservatory in Hingham. Emphasizing Giuliani’s musical bonds with his peers, the program includes works by Beethoven and Paganini and a piece by Giuliani based on the work of the great opera composer Rossini.

“Giuliani is underserved and neglected,” said Bekkers, who teaches at the South Shore Conservatory and studies with guitar maestro Eliot Fisk at the New England Conservatory. “He should be with the others. He’s neglected for no good reason. We’re programming this concert in a way that shows Giuliani was an active force in their world with these other composers.”

Born in Italy in 1781, Giuliani found success in Vienna, the era’s musical capital, and is generally regarded as the first great guitarist in the classical tradition. As a performer he was a popular virtuoso who performed with the greatest soloists of his time. He played in one of Beethoven’s symphonies (on cello), and Rossini gave him access to his scores to produce the guitar piece called “Rossinianna.”

While Beethoven’s revolutionary romantic music was setting audiences’ hair on fire, Giuliani’s music was more conservative and classical (the style of Mozart and Haydn), though that style was prominent in his peers’ work as well, as the concert intends to show. And although his music is less widely known than theirs, most classical guitarists today have studied works of his such as the “Giuliani Etudes.”

Giuliani’s status also suffers “because of the reputation of the guitar as an instrument, due to the complexities of the instrument and its volume,” Bekkers said. “The idea that the guitar is fine for accompaniment but not for solo has been haunting us since the old days.”

In fact, he said, “its sound is not always that soft. It is when you want it to be intimate, but it’s also quite expressive and outgoing.”

The program consists of three piano-guitar duos, plus a solo piece for each instrument. Bekkers performs “Rossinianna”; and Kuan performs “32 Variations in C minor,” composed by Beethoven in 1806 as a solo work on an original theme.

They combine on Giuliani’s “Rondo in B minor”; the “Grand Sonata, First Movement” by Niccolo Paganini; and “Grand Potpourri National” by Giuliani and the composer-pianist Nepomuk Hummel. The last is an example of a popular period style, offering a combination of themes from national anthems of the time. Works like this, Bekkers said, met the demands of amateur musicians for familiar music they could play at home.

The work was a product of a European era of “new-found peace after the Napoleonic wars,” Bekkers states in his program notes. People “would engage in playing music themselves or organize house concerts, where more often than not famous celebrities would make their appearance.”

The concert program is also aimed at recovering the popularity of the piano and guitar duo. In the era of “guitar gods” it’s hard to picture the guitar as unpopular, but as an acoustic instrument on the concert stage it has suffered from its relatively limited volume.

In “Giuliani’s Friends,” “two of the most popular and accessible instruments are joined together in an effort to reclaim the place they once had in our society,” Bekkers stated.

The guitarist said he addressed the volume issue with a specially built guitar. “My guitar is a whole different animal. . . . It’s very powerful; it has a noble tone. A rich and full tone.”

Kuan called the balance of the two instruments “an intricate challenge” because the concert piano is “a huge instrument.”

But the pianist, a Hong Kong native who studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., said she and Bekkers hope to use their collaboration to show that the popular instruments can play well together.

Kuan said she moved to Boston after Eastman and continued to study with teachers who fed her interest in authentic interpretation of Baroque and Classical era performance. She founded her own piano teaching studio called EKSTUDIO (www.eks-arts.com).

If you’re a musician, especially one with early-music leanings, she said, there’s nothing like Boston.”

The creative fertility of an area so rich in music schools and excellent musicians gives birth to ideas such as performing a once-popular work written collaboratively by the famous-long-ago guitarist Giuliani and pianist Hummel.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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