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David Russell in Edmonton
by John Sloan

There is an odd little sign hanging on the wall in the Choral Rehearsal room 1-29 at the University of Alberta. It says, "No Singing." It was strangely out of place in a room devoted to making music; obviously someone there has a sense of humor! There was no sign forbidding the playing of the guitar, however, nor could anyone have stopped the diehard fans and devotees who gathered in that room on the evening of April 27th for Mr. Russell's masterclass (one performer travelled all the way from Winnipeg just for this class!). Despite David Russell's reputation as one of the world's greatest guitarists, only about 2 dozen people attended the masterclass. This was a plus for those who did, because it allowed for an intimate atmosphere. We all got to sit "up close", a major treat. Mr. Russell encouraged the audience to ask questions at any time during the class, and spoke freely to all on a variety of subjects dealing with the classical guitar and its repertoire. He even told a joke or two.

A violist and a pianist went to a piano recital together. During the intermission, the violist asked the pianist, "What was the name of that delightful piece that started with the trill?" The pianist couldn't remember which piece that might be, so he asked the violist to hum a few bars. "Oh," replied the violist, "it went like this: 'da da da da daa da dee dee dum ...' (here, David played the opening bars of Fur Elise on his guitar) [much laughter from the audience]. David's sister is a violist, he explained, and they kid each other back and forth, exchanging viola jokes by email.

A David Russell masterclass, if this one was any indication, is relaxed and enlightening. He put everyone at ease from the start, smiling warmly and treating us all by playing a few short pieces as part of his warmup, playing with a silky smooth tone. What a sound he makes!!!! It's one thing to hear him on the concert stage in a large room, but to hear him close up is extraordinary.

There were five performers for this class, and all played well and all received much good advice. David treated each performer with a great deal of respect, always a great value to the student, and his comments on everyone's playing were perceptive and to the point. The class was too long (3 hours) to summarize in this short space, so here are some of his words of advice:

"Sometimes our fingers play more for us than our minds." David encouraged the performers to play according to the music, not just with their reflexes. Don't let your reflexes accent a note, for instance, just out of habit, but because the music requires it.

When playing Baroque music involving a lot of counterpoint, use a crisper tone so that all the voices are heard. Save the "warmer" tone for Tarrega, he said. David gave us a nice analogy for this. If you spoke in a deep, husky tone, it would be difficult to make yourself understood to someone standing at the back of a crowded room. But, if you use a brighter voice, the people at the back will be able to hear and understand you. Since so much Baroque music has a lot going on at the same time, you need the brighter tone to make everything heard.

Overall, David emphasized musical interpretation in his comments to the performers, with some advice on technique. Perhaps the most "profound" insight he offered that night was about what makes a virtuoso. Why, for instance, does someone like Manuel Barrueco stand out among players with equally good technique? Russell's answer: attention to detail. Better players, said Russell, demand more of themselves. They go that "extra mile" in their practicing to make a piece just right. It's not just better technique that separates them from everyone else, but because they are more focussed, and more deliberate in knowing how they want a particular piece of music to sound.

David's recital the next evening, unlike the masterclass, was played to a full house! The Robertson-Wesley United Church was a perfect location, with wooden floors and walls, giving great acoustics. Russell played without amplification and was heard throughout the church.

Think of all of the most wonderful adjectives you can, and they would describe his playing: magnificent ... virtuosic ... sensitive ... dazzling technique ... accomplished musicianship ... personal warmth ... beautiful tone ... Clear, precise articulation and expressive musicianship were the hallmarks of his performance. David Russell came to Edmonton with a world-class reputation and showed that it is well deserved. The highlight of the evening was the "Six Traditional Celtic Melodies" that closed David's program. Not only is he a great player, but he's also a talented arranger! You could tell that he enjoyed this part of the recital the most, because he moved more while playing these pieces - not sitting as straight, but swaying a little bit more as the Celtic tunes under his fingers entranced the audience. A perfect ending to a perfect evening (he also did two encores) Thanks to all who made David Russell's visit to Edmonton possible!

- John Sloan