Interview on Szesc Strun Swiata (Poland, 2021) by Radek Wieczorek
Nowadays there are many kids who start playing music but don't continue - very often the reason is lack of support from their parents. Indeed, a musician's life is not an easy one, so in a way such hesitation is understandable. How did you start with music? Did you or your parents ever have any doubts?
Music was always present in my life. I can not remember any moment without it. My paternal grandfather was an electrotechnician (my father too) but besides his job, he was a violin maker as well. My father played violin as a young man and he had quite a lot of concert experience to his credit, while my uncle, who is a passionate music-lover, played various instruments, including guitar.
It is thanks to them that I developed love for music. I can still remember when my father listened to the Concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Paganini played by Heifetz, Oistrakh, Rubinstein, Michelangeli, Ferras: I would sit on his lap, and while we listened he would point out the beauty of some of the passages and the differences in interpretation between the artists. It was exciting!
I started with piano and violin. Then one day, my uncle played a recording of some pieces by Albeniz. I was stunned! Manuel Barrueco was playing. My uncle gave me my first lessons. He explained some technical details and gave me some exercises from Julio Sagreras’ method. A week later I had prepared all the exercises in the book: I remember that he was very pleased. I was ten years old.
I believe that the enthusiasm and passion my uncle transmitted to me have been deciding factors. If I love music and the guitar so much, I owe it most of all to him. Every week he gave me a lot of music cassettes recorded from the radio, LP, sheet music etc. He made me listen to a lot of beautiful music: Bach, Beethoven, Monteverdi, Mahler, Britten, Palestrina, Prokofiev. My parents deserve thanks too, for always supporting my choices. Yes! I’ve been very lucky.
It is believed that all human beings are shaped by particular people, events and experiences. What influenced you as an artist the most?
After first experience with my uncle, I changed three teachers without any improvement. At the age of 13 I entered the Conservatory of Castelfranco-Veneto in the class of Maestro Tommaso de Nardis. I studied there for three years before moving to Venice. I met there one of the most impressive musicians and teachers I have ever had pleasure to work with in my life: Maestro Carlo Gnocato, a name that for sure doesn’t say anything to anybody in our instrument. He was my theory/solfeggio teacher, pianist, student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris. His lessons were terrific, really impressive, touching. We never did any solfeggio, any absurd singing exercises.
He came to every lesson with 8-10 scores under his right arm, he went to the piano (surrounded by his 6 students) and for the next three hours (twice per week) we were singing, analizing, playing with our instruments Schubert, Bach, Gesualdo, Haydn, Beethoven, da Milano, Marenzio, Henze, Dowland, Ligeti, Mozart, Boulez, Stravinsky. He was strongly convinced that, to be a great musician, we should understand very deeply the musical elements of the language (melody, harmony, rhythm, phrasing, articulation, effects of cadenzas, style, colors, etc.) from the masterworks of music history. I learned from him how to create a very organic interpretation, understanding the DNA of every work -or, at least, trying- with a deep ethic sense. If every teacher was like him, I'm sure we would have had much better musicians in the world. Unfortunately, he passed away last February at the age of 90 for Covid.
After, I enrolled in the Venice Conservatory until my Diploma with de Nardis. I think he was truly a great teacher, surely the best I could meet in my region and I’m grateful to him because he gave me so many opportunities. Lessons were not only about music: we also breathed a cultural atmosphere that was very stimulating.
Afterwards, I studied with Maestri David Russell and Manuel Barrueco, attending two courses with each, though over the years I have also attended dozens of lessons with Russell in master classes organized in Pordenone. They gave me the right suggestions at what was just the right moment. They enabled me to discover and understand technical and musical aspects which have helped me enormously.
The classes with Maestro Oscar Ghiglia at the Chigiana were illuminating. A man of great culture and sensitivity, Ghiglia was able to make me perceive, like Carlo Gnocato, a poetic world which gave inspiration. I have a wonderful memory of them. There are many people who have influenced my ideas, directly and indirectly: on guitar, Andres Segovia, Julian Bream, Ida Presti, Betho Davezac, Ruggero Chiesa, Alvaro Company, Alberto Ponce, Angelo Gilardino. On other instruments: Andras Schiff, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Grigory Sokolov, Leonidas Kavakos, Maria Callas, Magdalena Kozena, Il Giardino Armonico, Murray Perhaia, Sergiu Celibidache, Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli, Maurizio Pollini, Carlos Kleiber, Jordi Savall among many others.
You are a prolific teacher and a very fine performer. Just to mention CDs you recorded or some of the beautiful interpretations of music by Bach, de Falla and Sor that you shared on YouTube in recent months. Is there a particular reason why you eventually decided to dedicate yourself a bit more to teaching?
Before answering, I have to say that I love to teach. Probably I always felt better as a teacher than as a player. In 1998 (my carrier was growing very well with many concerts in different continents), I started to have some problems with my muscles; a kind of muscle dystrophy. It was psychologically very hard. In the next 15 years I was still playing but the stress was huge. You cannot imagine how difficult it was to play in the most important festivals the night before or after Russell, Micheli, Dukic, Steidl, Marquez, Kuropaczewski without knowing if I was able to finish the concert. Luckly, everything went always well and in some moments, I played some of the best concerts of my life.
After winning the position in Graz in 2010, unfortunately in 2013 I got a cancer (melanoma at the last stadium). I discovered from the doctors that this kind of cancer is in 80% of cases caused by stress. So, they suggested to me to go out from the circle of concerts. Now I'm over but... it was hard.
Teaching was always a very important part of my way of being a musician: I couldn’t live without it. I like trying to help other people enter the world of music, as they learn more about themselves and the world around them. When I teach I try to understand what the right and important things to say are at that moment, and I use a great variety of information (technical, musical, expressive, stylistic, cultural, the human aspect, the everyday aspect). I believe it is very important to encourage motivation, which triggers in the student the desire to express themselves and to evolve, giving their best. By the way, I’m happy you liked the last videos. Thank you!
I think it is fair to say that your class in KUG is one of the best guitar classes in the world. Many of your students already are (or could be in a future) a core of the international guitar scene, among many others Sean Shibe, Davide Tomasi, Giulia Ballaré, Zsombor Sidoo or Petra Polackova. What did the process of building the class look like and how does the class function today?
The Kug in Graz is a fantastic University, giving to teachers and students great opportunities. Since my arriving, it was a specific request of the Rectors to develop the artistic level of the guitar as highly as possible. During the years, I was lucky to have the privilege to work with phenomenal students coming from all over the world. Many colleagues, invited for masterclasses, said that the level was stunning. I had also the possibility to record two CDs with the students, with the common red line of sonata form.
After the retirement of Martin Myslivecek in 2018, I have a new fantastic colleague that you know very well: Lukasz Kuropaczewski! He’s in my opinion, one of the very top players in the world at the moment.
It’s amazing to work with him. We have an incredible empathy and many ideas in common about music, repertoire and life in general. Since last year, we presented a new project to the Rectors where the students can attend lessons of both at the same time. We have already 8 students doing it and they are increasing in the next year.
The students have lessons also with Petrit Ceku (chamber music), David Bergmuller (Renaissance and baroque Lute, Theorbo, Chitarrone, Baroque guitar) and Hugo Gonzalez Zurita (improvisation, repertoire after 1950 and didactic). So, I think it’s very attractive for students. Every years we are inviting at least 2 guests for a masterclass. Last time we had an honor to welcome Maestro Manuel Barrueco.
Since 2013, we have also a biennial guitar week, usually in April, with lessons, lectures, workshop and thematic concerts played by our students. In the edition of 2022, we are going to premiere a new piece for guitar ensemble commissioned from Roberto Sierra.
Considering the amount of young guitarists who would like to study with you, how do you decide on who would be accepted? Is there something special you are looking for in those promising musicians?
Music friendship, sensibility, technical skills, cultural knowledge, correct balance in the ego, discipline, personality, perseverance, carisma, the human being are all very important aspects to select a new student. Of course, it's not easy to find people with all these qualities but, when many of those aspects are missed, doesn't make any sense to start a musical relationship.
How should one approach learning a new piece? Is there a particular way you encourage your students to follow?
Above all, I want them playing beautiful music! Music that hold them completely, which is inevitable when you play important music written for our instrument. If possible, I like them evolving a certain coherence in the programs chosen, at least in the two parts of a concert.
In my opinion, they should select works strongly connected with their own personality and peculiar characteristics; something they really love and with which they identify. How many times we heard players totally disconnected from the repertoire chosen? People without any sparkling character playing brilliant Giuliani’s Rossinianas or players superficial playing very dramatic pieces like the Ciaccona or Nocturnal?
After many years studying, I think an interpreter should imagine, before playing a new piece, what he/she is feeling inside it. Singing is always an important part of learning process and being able to play every single part of the pieces as a solo line, with intensity, in every weaving, with different fingerings, whith an orchestral version in his/her mind, never forgetting how poetic and sensual the guitar is. A research around the composer, piece, form, style, period is also absolutely important.
I like them understanding the responsibility we all guitarists have on stage for the future of the music and guitar. I want them to be far from mentality, that guitarists must entertain. People need to be touched by music. They go to concerts to be deeply moved, looking for some touching experience. Doesn’t matter how difficult the language of the music is. What is important is the dramaturgy and intensity the player is able to create for them. For a normal public, it's not difficult to listen to a concert with Schostakovich Violin Concerto or Prokofiev Piano Sonatas or with Ligeti's works. How beautifyul or heavy the experience can be, depends only on the abilities of musicians. This is one of the cultural aspects I’m missing the most in the actual scene of guitar and from this side, the guitar festivals don't help.
Last but not least, I'm always suggesting to have, besides the solo repertoire, a set of chamber music projects with other instruments, to me, the only possibility for guitar to enter the real musical scene again.
In the previous edition of our magazine Gabriel Bianco mentioned some of the most common mistakes done by students: lack of long term practise plan - not focusing on all aspects of performance, and lack of deep understanding of musical context and meaning of gestures intended to create a certain effect. Could you point out some features which young guitarists tend to leave out?
I totally agree with Gabriel. Unfortunately, I haven’t read the interview but I’ll add that many times, I perceive students are more educated to do than to feel and understand what they are playing and this is a big lack I think.
Thanks to Segovia Guitar Academy in Pordenone, students from all over the world can attend classes with you. Besides guitar lessons, SGA organizes Segovia Guitar Week, which was a bit longer than a week this year - it started on 30th May and lasted till 27th June! Was it your idea to start such initiative as SGA? If yes, what were your motivations to do so?
Before the SGA and SGW, I organized the Tarrega Guitar Academy for 18 years and the Pordenone Guitar Festival in my town. We, as a guitar team, decided to leve this long journey in 2014 for different reasons, founding the new school. Two years ago I decided to leave my role as an artistic director of the Segovia Guitar Week working only at the SGA.
I begin with the idea that it’s not possible to know and understand everything. I feel that our pupils should be in contact with the experiences of people who have done specific studies in particular areas. For example, in the past years we have organized seminars on the Baroque period with Betho Davezac, Carlo Marchione and Eduardo Fernandez, in which various problems related to the diversity between the Italian and the French styles were examined: the articulation and phrasing of that period, the dances of the time (with the possibility of listening to performances of great interpreters), rhetorical and semantic aspects in Bach, the Ciaccona (and the interesting analysis made by the musicologist Helga Thoene). And this only for the Baroque. In studying the nineteenth century we were fortunate to have Pavel Steidl or the duo Maccari-Pugliese while for the twentieth century Angelo Gilardino, Tilmann Hoppstock, Lorenzo Micheli, Pablo Marquez. For all of us, teachers and students, these experiences bring continual enrichment, and offer the possibility of broadening our knowledge. In the past twenty-five years we have invited more than ninety colleagues, and each one of them put their personal knowledge at our service with great professionalism and generosity.
During the everyday life of a musician, teaching, practising, travelling… Where do you find (and what is) your source of inspiration?
Movies, books, listening to music, a walk in the woods, on the beach or in the country, good food, good wines, enjoying life with the family at home or with trips is always very inspiring. The joy we can express to music, playing and teaching, is very connected with the experiences we live!