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First Play: Alan Rinehart, Verdi's Guitar

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Robert Rowat

"The guitar is very good at capturing the vocal quality of a melody and Verdi's music is, if nothing else, supremely vocal," explains B.C. guitarist Alan Rinehart.

Verdi's Guitar, streaming in the player on your left until its Oct. 13 release on Ravello Records, is a must for guitar and opera fans alike. On it, Rinehart plays solo guitar fantasies on six popular Verdi operas, arranged by Johann Kaspar Mertz. Each one is a 10-minute distillation of the opera's best tunes, so while Rinehart dazzles you with his guitar skills, you can hum along to the familiar Verdi arias, duets, overtures and choruses that come at you in profusion.

"As an expert guitarist, Mertz really understood the guitar idiom, so these fantasies have the natural feel of an original guitar composition," Rinehart tells us. "Couple that with using, as a foundation, musical material of great craftsmanship, originality and appeal and you have a very satisfying musical experience."

Outside the opera house

Mertz, who lived from 1806-56, actually made 33 such arrangements, based on operas not only by Verdi, but also Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Meyerbeer — all the leading opera composers of his day. In the age before recordings, these were a convenient way for the public to enjoy this wildly popular music outside the opera house.

"The era of the legendary performers such as Liszt and Paganini and concertizing guitarists such as Sor and Giuliani was well underway by the time Mertz was performing," says Rinehart, reflecting on the typical concert experience of the mid-19th century. "An audience would expect to hear something brand new, something technically impressive and something popular, such as a potpourri on an opera, played with clever and unique touches added by the artist."

"I think he would have programmed these to closely follow the public's interest in the latest new opera," he adds.

'Style and intent'

Rinehart, co-founder of the Vancouver Guitar Quartet and longtime faculty member at U.B.C., says it helps to know Verdi's operas in order to play Mertz's arrangements. "Taking the score of these fantasy revues and just playing them as guitar pieces, with no familiarity of the operas on which they are based, one can naturally find tempi and dynamics that feel right and sound good. But without hearing some interpretations of the actual arias and some idea of the stories behind the music, it's easy to take a bit of a wrong turn!

"There were several times during my learning process where I discovered that what I was doing that felt right on the guitar was very different from that same music in the actual opera. I really tried to bring the style and intent of the original production to the voice of the solo guitar."

Verdi's Guitar will be released on Oct. 13. You can pre-order it here.

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