"Occidente y Oriente," or "West Meets East," is the theme of this year's Boston GuitarFest, the six-string summit founded by virtuoso Eliot Fisk, now a joint endeavor of New England Conservatory and Northeastern University. Tuesday night's concert focused on Spain, that traditional pivot between West and East - also the source of the guitar's inescapable accent.
Guitarist Ricardo Gallén made the first half a mini-recital of 20th-century music with Iberian flavors. Composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a Florentine descended from Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492; three of his "24 Caprichos de Goya" updated Baroque rhetoric with chromatic counterpoint. Composer Joaquín Rodrigo spiked the nationalism of his "Tres Piezas Españolas" with cheerful dissonance.
The highlight of the first half was the 1933 Sonata by Antonio Jose, a composer praised by Maurice Ravel. The Sonata reimagines Ravel's polished impressionism on the guitar's terms. Gallén was equal to the challenges, with a silky sound and thoughtful, precise sense of phrase.
The second half turned back the clock, with guitarist Richard Savino and the group El Mundo exploring the Spanish Renaissance and Baroque. The opening "Symphonia para empezar" by the Neapolitan expat Domenico Scarlatti established the straightforward sound: three bowed strings (violinists Daniel Stepner and Kinloch Earle, cellist Guy Fishman), three plucked (Savino and Paul Shipper on guitar, Michael Beattie on harpsichord), and a brash timbre that became more pronounced with tambourine and castanets.
"No se emenderá jamas," a short Spanish cantata composed by George Friedrich Handel on sojourn in Naples (sung here by soprano Ann Moss), proved elegantly Italianate. But the rest had a dancer's heart - some of it thoroughly lowdown. A rhythmic bit of zarzuela ("Xacara de Clarin") from the genre's 17th-century inventor, Juan Hidalgo, featured Shipper on vocals, entering from the back of the hall as a cheeky contemporary update of the criminal character; "Oygan una Xacarilla" by Rafael Antonio Castellanos, an 18th-century chapelmaster, adapted a disreputable dance to sacred text.
"Fandango" by Santiago de Murcia alternated ardent rumination and fiery footwork, a pattern reworked by Rodrigo on the first half, not to mention the last of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's "Caprichos" and the finale of Jose's Sonata. It was like watching Spanish music and its quintessential instrument grow up together.
Boston GuitarFest continues through Sunday. Go to bostonguitarfest.org for a full schedule.