Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra strums across the centuries



"Good things happen when you get that many guitar players in one place!" Those words came from Barry Stockwell, who should know. He is one of the region’s finest pickers, who happens to also have been, until recently, director of the Hooker-Dunham Theater, which will again host the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra, an amazingly eclectic 21-player ensemble.

That’s right, more than 20 guitarists of all ages and stripes will be squeezing onto the Hooker-Dunham’s cozy little stage this Saturday where they wowed a sold-out crowd last April with their inventive arrangements of works that swing from modern to medieval.

The group’s mastermind, Peter Blanchette, promises an even more inventive and eclectic performance this time around, drawing from hugely disparate geographic and musical places, but this time with an emphasis on one particular decade.

"I chose a lot of music that came out in the 1980s. The paradoxes of style and form in that time are interesting to me. I find it fascinating that, at the same time that Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is writing religiously inspired music -- something very radical in the Soviet Union, expressing the challenges to that system that would bring about glasnost, perestroika, etc., (while) in Manchester, England, The Smiths were writing pop songs that made strong lyrical statements against Thatcher-ite England, and musically reacting against the whole synth-pop, drum-machine, New Wave sound with jangly, multi-tracked, electric guitar textures."

HVGO will also be arranging works by the minimalist American composer from that era. "(Philip) Glass was actually entering what I think of as his mature phase of minimalism," explained Blanchette, "I remember those days, since I went to conservatory to study composition in 1977, and by 1980, I had dropped out because I found the whole atonal, hyper-rational school of music utterly boring and useless. Most of my musician friends played punk, while I played Bach and Benjamin Britten."

Not surprisingly for a band as adventurous as HVGO, the repertoire for the Brattleboro stop will not be completely relegated to one decade’s worth of compositions. "The program isn’t didactically stuck on just the 80s though -- that would be very 1990s -- being so rigid about some bogus through-line for a concert program!

"For me the joy and challenge is in the arranging, and when a student of mine exposed me to the wonderful music of Wilco a couple of years ago, I decided we had to work on one of Jeff Tweedy’s fabulous songs. I chose ‘One Wing’ from the self-titled album Wilco, Along with this, we’ll play some traditional century Scottish dances, originally for violin and sometimes with harp, collected and composed by the great Nathaniel Gow in the 1880s. There is more, dances of the early 1500s French composer Pierre Attaignant, and J.S. Bach."

I had trouble imagining what a headache it must be for Blanchette to somehow bring together both the logistical and artistic challenges of meshing the varying talents (and egos) of 20 guitar slingers.

"This is the biggest challenge for me, and ultimately it holds the greatest promise for reward. I won’t say it’s easy, because it isn’t. Many good guitarists do not read music well, certainly not to the level of sight-reading. But since I am a guitarist, and learned to play by ear, and worked out complex musical arrangements with other guitarists long before I read music, I know how to communicate with guitarists about what I want. They still have to follow a written part, there is a score, and the players work incredibly hard on articulation, dynamics, tempo nuances, etc., and of course, we all must play at the right time together, but with dedication and hard work, we get it."

Blanchette allows no improvisation in HVGO. "In fact," he states, "One of my frequent comments, when players ‘misinterpret’ their parts is. ‘This is not a jam band."

Hooker-Dunham Theater is located at 139 Main St. Call 802-254-9276 Tickets for May 10 are $15 for adults, $12 for students and children, available in advance at www.hvgo.org and at the theater door the night of the performance. Start time is 7:30 p.m. More information is at www.hvgo.org and www.hookerdunham.org.

Dave Madeloni writes a weekly music column for the Arts & Entertainment section. He can be reached at madeloni@aol.com.


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