When Ben Verdery arranges Jimi Hendrix’s fuzzed out “Ezy Rider” or Johann Strauss’ waltz “The Blue Danube” for classical guitar, he approaches them with equal intensity.
“I’m essentially creating a new piece for the classical guitar, so my concern is, how can I make this great on the classical guitar?” he asks. “Arrangements are somewhat trial and error.”
The renowned classical guitarist has been chair of the guitar department at the Yale University School of Music since 1985 and artistic director of art of the guitar at the 92nd Street Y in New York City since 2006. His collaborators include Grammy Award-winning classical guitarist John Williams (John Williams Plays Vivaldi), guitarist Andy Summers of The Police (First You Build a Cloud) and steel string guitarist William Coulter.
As part of CSU Monterey Bay’s second annual California Summer Arts event (see story, p. 38), Verdery will perform a solo recital Wednesday at the World Theater. He will also be on hand through July 7 to teach a master class in Dominguez Hall.
Along with Verdery’s repertoire of original compositions spanning 22 albums, some of his most dynamic work comes in arrangements of songs by other musicians, including many tunes you’d never expect to hear on classical guitar.
Verdery’s most recent record Happy Here features a mellow rendition of Cream’s psychedelic classic “White Room.” Though the time signature is slower than the version rocked by Baker, Clapton and Bruce, Verdery captures the essence of the tune.
“I always try to find that game changer,” he says. “When something sounds great on the classical guitar, that’s when we have something we can work with.”
Prince’s “Purple Rain,” “Kiss,” “For the Tears in Your Eyes” and “Let’s Go Crazy” are probably the most unexpected of any of the music Verdery has taken on, but they work very well – “Let’s Go Crazy’s” main guitar riff translates seamlessly to classical. “It’s important to go outside of your comfort zone,” he says. “When people stay very close to their comfort zone they don’t progress. As a teacher, if I can give [students] the confidence to go forward and believe in themselves, that’s great.”
Classical guitarist Andrew York also performs on Wednesday. Endowed with influences ranging from bluegrass to folk to jazz, the Grammy Award-winning guitarist/composer is the only USC graduate – he earned a master’s of music – to ever receive the Outstanding Alumni of the Year Award twice.
“Andrew York’s eclectic writing and playing constitute one of the hippest styles in American classical guitar,” Guitar Player Magazine’s Jim Ferguson writes. “His writing projects, levels of honesty, spirit and magnetism are rare in contemporary guitar composition.”