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Thibault Cauvin at the Phillips

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Bell'Italia, T. Cauvin
In the Phillips Collection Music Room, adorned with prized paintings and warmly awash in a fall Sunday afternoon’s light, French virtuoso guitarist Thibault Cauvin gave a masterful recital in support of his latest album, CITIES, released just three days before. The simple conceit of a global journey, with each programmed work representing a different metropolis, allowed the 27-year-old, faintly Django-mustachioed Cauvin to display his prowess while integrating a wide range of styles within his own unclassifiable sensibility.

Cauvin’s technique embodies the highest level of conservatory training and, as was rather indelicately hyped by the house, competition prize-winning. The soulful sound of his CITIES program drew heavily from jazz and popular music as well as world genres from tango to raga. Every piece had a recognizable groove, though sometimes an irregular one, as in the obsessively resetting rhythms of Rocktypicovin, written for the guitarist, at the precocious age of 12, by his father, Philippe (b. 1952), and now used as his standard encore. At other times Cauvin showboatingly interrupted the beat to work in a playful lick, as with the atmospheric glissandi executed on the instrument’s highest harmonics during Roland Dyens's arrangement of Take the 'A' Train. Likewise, every piece was accessibly tonal or modal, while often enlivened with crunchy dissonances and, possibly, microtones, though persistent tuning problems made it hard to tell which of these were intentional.

Cauvin dazzled with an array of exotic sounds. In mimicking the koto for an arrangement of Minoru Miki’s film score from L’Empire des sens, he uncannily captured the Japanese instrument’s harsh clangs as well as its delicate arpeggios and subtle pitch bends. In Raga du soir by Sébastien Vachez (b. 1973), Cauvin created a village of distinct voices through extreme dynamics and clever muting, along with drumming all over the body of the guitar.

A first-rate soloist, Cauvin delivered a spirited and unified performance that was more entertaining than artistically challenging, despite its international flavor. If the mid-20th-century birth dates next to composers’ names on the program had led any listeners to expect an envelope-pushing new music concert, they would have been disappointed. This enjoyable offering was typical for the Phillips; its genteel Sunday afternoon concerts usually shun the experimentalism embraced by its art exhibitions, though the museum has taken some steps toward the edge with its Leading European Composers series.

Next Sunday's concert at the Phillips Collection is a recital by British pianist Leon McCawley, playing music of Bach, Debussy, Chopin, and others (October 28, 4 pm).

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