How exciting and stimulating was this passionate and refined recital by guitarists Ziggy & Miles Johnston as they continue to forge a strong, enduring and brilliant career. Prize winners in Australia’s most prestigious guitar competitions, the Johnston Brothers became the first guitar duo to be accepted into the Juilliard School of Music, where they will now return to complete Juilliard’s Artist Diploma program. Tonight’s sell-out concert was testimony to the high regard and respect for the admirable skills and advanced musicianship of this charismatic partnership.
Notable guitar duos have set a tough high standard – one thinks of John Williams & Julian Bream, and our own Grigoryan Brothers, Leonard & Slava, who have mentored and inspired Ziggy & Miles. Showing a similar flawless and technical brilliance combined with a love of the magic of Spanish, Australian, classical and contemporary guitar genres, tonight’s performance showed that Ziggy & Miles are also on a unique career path.
Written in 1959, Joaquin Rodrigo’s three-movement work, Tonadilla, was quite a fabulous opening. Almost like a Spanish fanfare, we were enthralled by the combination of exciting traditional flamenco rhythms blended with shifting quirky chromatic steps and surprising biting contemporary melodic shapes. Colourful and intense, the audience was challenged to listen “in stereo” to embrace the many shifting technical elements in this music. The second movement, Minueto Pomposo centred around a slower dramatic bolero rhythm with classical and expressive free flowing scales with many abruptly contrasting tonal sections. An Allegro Vivace further fascinated us with highly synchronised precision in advanced finger-picking in this balanced, blended and flawless ensemble.
The music of Enrique Granados, firmly rooted in Spanish nationalism and feel, is highly elegant and classical in structure, with strong Romantic melodies and sudden changes from major to minor parallel keys evident of his piano studies in France. Valse Poeticos (8 Waltzes), originally written for solo piano (c. 1886-1894), have for a long time been in the guitar repertoire for solo or duo guitars. The Johnston Brothers chose an arrangement by contemporary Bavarian/German duo Gruber & Makler, where sophisticated playing techniques such as palming, dampening and playing near the bridge added freshness to the romantic waltz melody and the contrasting flights of virtuosic runs. Classical in structure, the work was given dramatic, contemporary and sophisticated colour. Quite impressive was the Brothers Johnston’s split-second timing of intense silences, instant and dramatic contrasts in dynamics and tone colour, often required with speed of judgement and precise physical movement, control and decision making.
Unfortunately, there were no programme notes for this wonderful repertoire, but both brothers spoke warmly and affably to the audience, sharing their memories of guitar sessions and their personal affection for the colourful Melbourne guitarist Phillip Houghton (1954 – 2017) before playing his Three Duets. The Mantis and the Moon showed illustrative tarantella dancing steps, contrasting gentle angular steps, thoughtful silences, exploring and scurrying activity. In Lament, solemn, sad, gorgeous arpeggiated chords held us in a steady pulse, with intriguing harmony and short melodic phrases fading in the softness of softnesses to a breathlessness. Alchemy was technically ambitious, and gave Miles & Ziggy the opportunity for active, flowing, virtuosic tremolos and percussive effects on strings and woodwork.
Beautifully relevant was the next choice of Distance, a sumptuous piece by Leonard Grigoryan. Tonight the playing was warm and reflective, with a sweet, lyrical melodic phrase recurring between gentle improvisatory sections, sliding and gently shifting tonal centres, and an exciting build-up of waves of tremolos, closing with soft, syncopated, almost Latin, dance flavours. It was a fine chance to hear the resonant and honey-tones of the Brothers’ fine guitars – made by Adelaide’s Jim Redgate and Domenic Roscioli. How special to have Australian composers, musicians and instruments together in this concert moment.
In Nigel Westlake’s Songs From the Forest, composed originally for guitar and percussion, the duo excelled with unified timbres and textures, pushing the dynamics and assertive percussive patterns on both strings and guitar body. More complex elements in this vibrant piece, assertive melodic work, rhythmic slapping of the strings and changing meters never lost the element of joy and gentle surprise. A most innovative section of the piece required great delicacy and softness in a short multi-pitched section of widely spaced harmonics. Coming late in the piece it was a beautiful surprise, ephemeral, atmospheric and richly enhanced in the acoustic of the Primrose Potter Salon.
With lengthy applause following this brilliant program, Miles & Ziggy gave us their arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, not without energy, showing further blended and harmonious contrasts with a sensuous, soft and delicate ending.
J.McErlain reviewed “Australian Rhapsody” performed by the Johnston Brothers guitar duo at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon on July 14, 2022.