The Cranleigh School Concert Series welcomed Jonathan Hennessy-Brown’s Santiago Quartet to the Emms Centre for a warmly received concert on 14th November. Jonathan was the one of the School’s finest ever ‘cellists and, since leaving Cranleigh and the RCM, has had a varied and highly successful professional career, including six years in Mexico. He formed the Santiago Quartet to play a mainly Latin-American repertoire and this concert programme was an extended version of their 2011 cd (Cubafilin Records) which garnered rave reviews in ‘Gramophone’ and elsewhere. Violinist Emma Blanco was also returning to the area, having been at Guildford High School before the RCM.

The concert ended with Cuban composer and guitar virtuoso Leo Brouwer’s (b. 1939) Beatlerianas: haunting arrangements for guitar, quartet and bass. Those of us of a certain age (myself and AJG included) felt these nostalgia-soaked arrangments were really touching, as well as hugely pleasurable listening. Brouwer wrote each one in the style and language of various composers, including Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith. The guitarist was the world-renowned Cuban musician, Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas (who has already released five cd albums), whose attractively forthright tone and ping-on tuning blended and, where necessary, rode on top of, the texture of the quartet. The opening piece was also by Brouwer (who has something of a cult following), a substantial guitar quintet, the slow movement of which produced some especially beautiful viola playing from Suzanne Evans. This Brouwer piece was also played by these artists at the UK premiere of ‘Beatlerianas’ in 2011 in London, and can be seen on YouTube.

Mr Carenas played an intimate solo (‘Muerte del Angel’) by Piazzolla in which the sheer variety of colour and texture he drew from the strings was amazing. Jonathan also gave us a solo: two improvisations, one reflecting a Speech Project he previously worked on, so that he accompanied his own reading of words about music by fellow musician Martin Hayes: the key word here was sincerity, a word that also was apt for Jonathan’s introductions to the music and his kind words about his teachers at Cranleigh, three or four of us being in the audience. Jonathan also gave fulsome praise to violinist Jeff Moore who took on all this rare and difficult repertoire from the original quartet member.

Also ripped (as they say) from the Santiango Quartet’s cd were the pieces they played by Alvarez and del Aguila. The latter is a Uruguayan composer who wrote his Presto II in Vienna as a mild satire on that city’s veneration of the quartet form, so that, as well as challengingly irregular rhythms, the performers have to knock the underside of the violin, bang the sound-board with the frog of the bow, stamp their feet and shout ‘hey’. No wonder the press of that dourest of European capital deemed the piece ‘not serious’ when a shorter version was part of the composer’s second quartet.

Alvarez’s ‘Metro Chabacano’ (the renowned Mexican composer is a friend of Jonathan’s and expressed his delight on Facebook that his piece was being aired at Cranleigh) was commissioned to be played at a kinetic installation for a busy station on Mexico City’s frenetic subway system. This modern take on the ‘moto perpetuo’ tradition was played for three months on a continuous loop in the station, though Jonathan doubted that his friend Javier got the sort of royalties that might imply.

The only North American music featured was by the Jewish composer David Stock (born only three months after Leo Brouwer), the Spanish title of which fitted the bill nicely, ‘Suenos de Sefarad’ (Sefarad is an ancient Jewish name for Spain, the homeland of Sephardic Jews). In context this seemed another journey piece, as well as a conversation piece; Jonathan simply called it a ‘gorgeous piece’, with its eponymous dream-like quality spiced by semi-tone clashes.

This was a memorable evening in the lovely acoustic of the Emms Centre. I hope that the quartet will return soon and that Mr Carenas might be invited to give a solo concert, as there are many talented guitar players at Cranleigh who were unable to hear him in this busy school week.

PJL