'Brazilian Masters': a portrait of guitar artistry


When Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras teamed up for a live concert in Rome in July 1990, it set the classical music world on its ear. From that performance by the three greatest living tenors there came a recording that has sold 7 million copies and is still selling.

When Laurindo Almeida, Carlos Barbosa-Lima and Charlie Byrd combine for a guitar concert titled "The Brazilian Masters" at Johns Hopkins' Shriver Hall Saturday night, the occasion may not be quite so glamorous as the show in Rome, but it is nevertheless an event of importance in the six-string universe.

Outside of a recording studio, rarely can guitarists such as these skilled practitioners of the South American genre be pinned down for a couple of hours. Even though age -- Mr. Almeida is 76 and Mr. Byrd is 68 -- and ill health may have slowed the pace for at least two members of the trio, their schedules remain jammed with appearances and concert dates.

Mr. Byrd, who last month was named the first "Maryland Art Treasure" by the Community Arts Alliance of Maryland, confesses his commitments have given him few opportunities to indulge his favorite hobby, spending time on his Annapolis-based boat.

"If my boat were a dog, it would bite me for neglect," says Mr. Byrd, who does manage to walk and bicycle daily as part of a rehabilitation program following cancer surgery some time ago.

"We haven't made a lot of appearances together because we all have our individual careers, so this is sort of a special event," he said. "We did have a tour lined up several years ago, but I got sick and then Laurindo did, too."

At Mr. Byrd's suggestion, the three got together in 1990 for a highly regarded recording on the Concord label called, appropriately, "Music of the Brazilian Masters." Aficionados have marveled at the techniques employed that enhanced the individuality of each performer's guitar.

Mr. Byrd promises more of the same at Saturday night's concert.

"We'll do some trio, some duo and some solo, a little bit of everything, with a strong emphasis, of course, on the Brazilian side of things," said Mr. Byrd. "It's a unique music, one that everyone can enjoy."

Musicians have for years puzzled over how Mr. Byrd, born in rural Virginia, became an expert in complex South American rhythms. But it's no mystery to Laurindo Almeida, the Oscar-winning dean of nylon-string guitarists who has been a major figure in the advent of South American music in the United States since the late 1940s.

"It is quite simple," said Brazilian-born Mr. Almeida. "It takes a genius to embrace the Spanish styles, and Charlie Byrd is a genius. He came to me many years ago to ask about some certain Brazilian music and we hit it off. We are very fortunate to have been able to work together."

zTC Like Mr. Byrd, Mr. Almeida recently had cancer surgery and he is a bit slowed by painkillers, but retirement is the farthest thing from his mind. "My fingers still move, don't they?" he said.

At 48, Mr. Barbosa-Lima is the baby of the group, but only in years. He was a prodigy who began playing concerts in his native Sao Paolo, Brazil, at age 12 and his arrangements for guitar of music as diverse as Scott Joplin rags and George Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" have been hailed as breakthroughs for the instrument.

"A marvelous musician, very astute," says Mr. Byrd of Mr. Barbosa-Lima. "It was obvious he was a very unusual young man at an early age."

Mr. Barbosa-Lima's extensive touring of South America during the past 12 months has forced him to take a leave from his faculty post at the Manhattan School of Music, but he says he will enjoy making time for Saturday's performance.

"Since I was a child, I have stood in admiration of Almeida," he said. "This will be an excellent show because of our mutual respect and the admiration . . . We all make different contributions and the music crosses many boundary lines -- Brazilian, traditional, classical.

"We have become so familiar with one another's styles that it's like a chamber orchestra in that we can take turns playing lead, carrying a bass line, harmonizing or just taking off on an improvisation. It is all good music for the listener."

It's all good for the musicians, too. The guitarists are hardly candidates for the poorhouse, but it has not been that many years since some purists considered guitarists among the downtrodden who should be suffering for their artistry. Today, guitarists are encouraged to seek maximum exposure and build goodwill for the instrument.

Mr. Byrd, who has spent much of his career delivering his blend of styles in jazz clubs, welcomes that progress.

"It's amazingly significant what exposure can do," he points out. "Remember, even the great Andres Segovia was only playing small arenas for small groups after World War II. Then he went on the 'Ed Sullivan Show.' He didn't like it because he was on with a bunch of trained seals and jugglers and he was highly insulted. But afterward there was an immediate demand for his services )) and he moved into a more popular realm and began his work of championing the guitar's cause.

"It's a mistake to seek sensationalism, but we need all the audience we can get. I myself have no wish to be buried in a pauper's grave containing the epitaph, 'He was noted for his good taste.' "


What: Concert featuring guitarists Laurindo Almeida, Carlos Barbosa-Lima and Charlie Byrd

When: Saturday at 8 p.m.

Where: Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus on Charles Street

Tickets: $19 and $20. Senior citizen and student discounts are available at the JHU Office of Special Events

Call: (410) 516-7157

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