Aquarelle Guitar Quartet: Manchester group looking forward to playing at Manchester Guitar Festival

The Aquarelle Guitar Quartet formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and are now looking forward to playing their home city at the Manchester Guitar Festival.
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A Manchester guitar group founded by music students in the city has spoken about performing at a hometown festival dedicated to all things six-stringed.

The Aquarelle Guitar Quartet are part of a packed line-up of musicians for the second Manchester Guitar Festival in May with a programme spanning classical music, Americana, flamenco and more. The quartet came together at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in 1999 and two of the original four musicians are still in the line-up today.

Founder member Mike Baker spoke to ManchesterWorld about the group’s eclectic musical tastes and discography, the freedom that comes with an instrument which is not a core part of the orchestra and what it is like to play a high-profile event dedicated to the guitar in the city the musicians still call home.

Who are the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet?

The Aquarelle Guitar Quartet was founded at the RNCM where the guitar tutor put together groups of students each year to develop their ensemble playing as they were not able to join the college’s orchestras.

Mike Baker and Vasilis Bessas were in the original quartet and, a few line-up changes later, are now alongside James Jervis and Rory Russell in the group.

Mike said: “We took the quartet seriously and really enjoyed playing in that grouping. It also opened up more opportunities. Everyone expects to be the next John Williams when going through college but being a soloist is incredibly difficult, so when we found a niche we pushed forward with it.”

Aquarelle Guitar QuartetAquarelle Guitar Quartet
Aquarelle Guitar Quartet

Starting out, the quartet was influenced by two similar existing groups: Los Romeros, consisting of members of the Romero family renowned for their playing of both flamenco and classical music, and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, which Mike said inspired them with their eclectic repertoire choices which extended far beyond purely classical. Another inspiration along the way has been the Brazilian Assad brothers, who Mike says are “phenomenal” and have an “almost telepathic” level of understanding in their playing.

Mike said: “We do a lot of our own arrangements, whether it’s from classical music or more popular styles. The soundscape of four guitars enables you to explore that a bit more than a duo or a trio.

“If anyone has an idea for repertoire we bring it to rehearsal and try it out. We will bash through it and some things don’t work and get left but some things really transform into something we might not have originally expected. It’s an exciting way of working.”

With a record deal with the Chandos label, the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet has explored Latin American and Brazilian music, film music, classical pieces and more on CD. They have also commissioned numerous works from composers over the years, including one from Manchester-based saxophonist Andy Scott called Seven Dances and No Looking Back.

Manchester as the quartet’s home city and the Manchester Guitar Festival

Since starting out at the RNCM the quartet has never left Manchester, with the four musicians currently in the group living around Greater Manchester and the North West. Mike explained why the area is such a good fit for the ensemble.

He said: “We’re quite an eclectic ensemble with lots of different genres in play and it’s like that in Manchester. When we were in college we’d go to Matt and Phreds for jazz and to the Bridgewater Hall as well as things at the Royal Northern. It’s a vibrant city for the arts and we really enjoy being part of that.”

The Aquarelle Guitar Quartet is also excited to be playing at the Manchester Guitar Festival, a celebration of all things involving six strings which is taking place for the second year. The quartet play towards the end of the packed programme with a concert at The Stoller Hall on Sunday 21 May and Mike is promising guitar enthusiasts a selection of favourites from the group’s career alongside some new material.

Mike says the group is delighted to have such a prominent event for the guitar in their home city and says he is particularly looking forward to a masterclass and performance by virtuoso fingerpicking player Jon Gomm.

The Aquarelle Guitar QuartetThe Aquarelle Guitar Quartet
The Aquarelle Guitar Quartet

He said: “It’s great to have the guitar festival. There used to be one bi-annually at the Bridgewater Hall run by RNCM tutor Craig Ogden and we were involved with that when it happened.

“It’s good to have younger guitarists included and to make sure they are getting something out of it. It’s not just performances, it’s really worthwhile classes with experienced people who are going out there and doing it.

“It’s great for me that the guitar is being thought of, because for a long time it wasn’t really a well-respected instrument. It’s great to be part of a whole weekend at Chet’s and The Stoller Hall.

“We do enjoy doing these concerts in Manchester. It’s nice to have these fantastic venues on your doorstep which are respected all over the country. I went to Chet’s aged 11 to 18 before going to the RNCM to keep with the same teachers so I basically moved to Manchester when I was 11. This is definitely a bit of a homecoming concert.”

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