Dyens is difficult to label. Is he a classical, a jazz, or a folk/world guitarist? The most accurate answer is that he is all three. And he is more. He composes. He arranges. He shows that he as a musicologist and an ethnomusicologist as well. He is, in short, the whole package; a musician of remarkable breadth and wisdom. Even better, he brings to this broad palate a virtuosic technique tempered by restraint and taste. He is, in fact, not a "and a master of none"; rather, he is a "jack of all trades, and a master of them all." Not many musicians can lay claim to such an accomplishment.
Dyens brought all this to Milwaukee last night in the UWM Recital Hall. Not only was his concert memorable because of its overwhelming musicality; it was memorable because of something else. It was something that by itself is not important, but added to everything, was able to tip his performance upward into a higher sphere. To put it crudely: Dyens knows how to play an audience; he has great stage presence. It is a calculated stage presence. But "calculated" is not quite a just term. We may call his stage manner "calculated", but in the end, we must, to be fair, also call it eloquent. It is not only Dyens' music that is artful; his presentation of that music is artful as well. There is a touch of the vaudeville about what he does. That, combined with a transcendent musicality, makes for a great show. His purple suede shoes, for a shirt a Tunisian flowered affair, the tussled hair that made him look like he was roused out of bed fifteen minutes ago before curtain time; taken, altogether, he communicated the idea that he is a delightful eccentric and an artist. The audio backs up the video. He is both.
At his concerts, the programs handed to the audience do not list the specific pieces that he will play. Dyens says that he chooses what he will play on the spot, basing his choices on his mood and his understanding of the nature of his audience. He also traditionally begins his recitals with an extended improvisation. Dyens' improvisatory skills are so masterful that I found it difficult to accept the fact that I was hearing an improvisation. When an improvisation sounds like a finished piece, you know that you have heard something special. I found myself asking: am I really hearing an improvised piece? But the doubts and questions that Dyens inspires are part of who he is. He seems to be vague on purpose. He challenges you with his vagueness. He wants to be a man of mystery. It makes the whole experience more exciting.
So what did Dyens perform ? All told, he played about 18 different piece of music; I can't be more detailed than that since what he performed was not listed in the program, I need now to relay on my memory which these days isn't what it used to be. But I also know that this lack of information is part of Dyens' subtle strategy. He doesn't want you to remember specifics. He want you to come away inspired not by facts , but by impressions. I remember that, after his improvisation, he played a set of three peices composed by himself. He then played three transcriptions of famous piano pieces; one by Albeniz, one by Tchaikovsky, and one by Chopin. I remember that he played a set of variations by Fernando Sor. After intermission, there were a few Choro pieces from Brazil, an arrangement of a Django Reinhardt tune, and an exquisite encore written in honor of his daughter's 18th birthday. I noted that he spoke with wit and insight about all of these pieces. But more than anything, Dyens' gift to his audience was the gift of a mood.
I came away from hearing Roland Dyens thinking that this is what music recitals must have been like in the 19th century. An artist arrives in town from a distant place. He is mysterious in his music and in his affect. He plays beautifully. When it is all over, over a cup of tea, you don't quite remember the program, but you know that it was very, very, good.
You go home with a sense of how beautiful music can be.
You go home wondering: where in the world, or out of it, did he find those purple suede shoes?