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April is International Guitar Month!

close-up picture of hands on the strings of a guitar
Jefferson Santos
Intimate guitar

When we hear the word “guitar” many of us may think of rock, folk, blues, country, and even jazz. Classical music is often not at the top of mind. But guitars, and before them, lutes and other similar string instruments, have been part of what we categorize broadly as “classical music” for hundreds of years. For the 35th anniversary of International Guitar Month, I asked numerous top-tier performers for their thoughts about the instrument and what it means to them.

For example, Minnesota-born Xavier Jara, a concert guitarist who is also teaching this semester at the University of Louisville, has very strong feelings about the instrument:

"I constantly choose the classical guitar because I find it to be the most intimate and exposing solo instrument. Nothing can be hidden from the listener, and an honest approach is needed for a good performance."

Here is Xavier Jara from a 2017 concert playing a Bach piece based on Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D.

Boston happens to be home to a classical guitar power couple. Internationally-renowned Eliot Fisk and his wife Zaira Meneses have traveled the world bringing all forms of classical guitar to the fore. He has been a member of the New England Conservatory faculty since 1996, while also teaching at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. Ms. Meneses also teaches guitar at NEC.

Mr. Fisk is also the founder and director of Boston GuitarFest, which he developed in 2006 with his wife and guitarist Steven Lin at the New England Conservatory. The summer festival has included master classes, seminars, and various formations of concerts, from solo guitar to guitar with full orchestra, and everything in-between. While Boston is the home base, the BGF has an international outreach, from attracting student-participants to commissioning works from contemporary composers around the world.

I asked why it seems that guitar isn’t always top-of-mind among classical music lovers, and Ms. Meneses commented, “It has not been easy to draw people’s attention. I think part of it has to deal with the system. Music is majorly sponsored by private institutions. There is already an established format for the oldest instruments (violin, cello, piano),” but not the same for guitar.

Just last year they formed EFGA MUSIC, (Eliot Fisk Guitar Academy). The project is based on Mr. Fisk’s life-long commitment and dedication to his instrument and his students worldwide. It aims to teach guitar technique to students around the world in seven languages.

Mr. Fisk has spoken often of the importance of teaching proper technique. He was the last private student of legendary guitarist Andrés Segovia, and Segovia, in turn, became Fisk’s mentor and one of his biggest admirers. Ms. Meneses said “We created EFGA to continue the legacy of Andrés Segovia and Eliot Fisk. The guitar technique should be taken with poetry and imagination. The young and new generation are wonderful, but confused about where to go and what to follow, especially with social media, where anyone can be ‘someone’ with a minute video clip on TikTok.”

I like this video of Eliot Fisk playing the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite, No. 4, because you can see his playing style close-up.

And here is Zaira Meneses playing the “Interlude” from contemporary composer Leo Brouwer’s Concerto Elgiaco at NEC’s Jordan Hall as part of Boston GuitarFest 2018.

This year’s Boston GuitarFest takes place at NEC, June 22-26, with a mix of both in-person concerts and on-line classes. In addition, Ms. Meneses founded the Latin American Music Festival, which will be held just before the BGF, June 16-19.

Years ago, I attended an intimate concert on Cape Cod by multiple-Grammy winner and guitarist Sharon Isbin. She held the instrument so self-assuredly and seemed to lose herself in the music, that in almost no time I felt that she and the guitar were one. I had the great pleasure of meeting her after the concert, and I mentioned my observation. She kindly said that for her, “…that was the idea.”

Ms. Isbin has released well over 2 dozen albums, exploring everything from Bach and other music of the Baroque, Spanish/Latin, even jazz fusion. She performed at the first televised 9/11 Memorial and as a soloist on the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film The Departed. You’ve heard her numerous times on WCRB’s playlist. Here she is playing Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of the Alhambra).

Another Boston-based guitarist whose work I admire is the extremely versatile Aaron Larget-Caplan. He is a concert guitarist who has premiered 85 solo and chamber recordings. He is on the performing arts faculty of the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and he teaches private students as well. I asked him what drew him to guitar in the first place?

“I came to classical guitar via electric guitar. I loved the many effects one could do, and playing in a band was fun. Sitting in my high school Spanish class at 16, I saw a video of Segovia playing Asturias, by Albéniz, and without any electronic effects to boot! It blew me away because it was a theme The Doors used in their tune “Spanish Caravan.” At home that night, I dropped the pick and started plucking with my fingers the strings of my electric guitar. I sought out a teacher, worked and saved all summer to buy a nylon string guitar, and started practicing and learning everything I could about this amazing instrument.”

Larget-Caplan’s performance repertoire covers a broad spectrum. I asked him about the guitar repertoire in general.

“I love the repertoire of the guitar. Whether it is transcriptions of lute and harpsichord music from the Renaissance or Baroque, the classical works from Italy, France and Spain, or the passionate romantic transcriptions of the early 20th century Spanish composers. The 20th century repertoire is extremely special, and I especially love Julian Bream’s championing of non-Spanish composers. The 21st century is wide open! So many composers are writing beautiful, challenging, and thoughtful solos and chamber pieces. Regarding contemporary music, it is a great Renaissance for the guitar! The instrument is so versatile and is being considered an equal chamber instrument more than ever!”

Here is Larget-Caplan playing his own arrangement of what is the most famous Spanish Paso Doble.

And here’s one more with a different sound. This is contemporary Japanese composer Keigo Fuiji’s The Legend of Hagoromo. (At the end of the piece, you’ll hear him tell the story of the 13th century legend).

Mr. Larget-Caplan added a final thought: “The guitar is the most beautiful of instruments, and the instrument of the 21st century!”

The classical guitar repertoire is vast, whether pieces transcribed from works for other instruments or written specifically for guitar. If you have an interest in hearing more guitar music you might want to check out these pieces:

John Williams plays the Cavatina by Stanley Myers, which was written for him, and used so effectively in the movie The Deerhunter:

Pepe Romero joins Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, playing the middle movement of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.

Emanuel Estrada Yarce plays William Walton’s Five Bagatelles.

Coda: Just for fun, here is a little video that anyone who has ever picked up a guitar can probably relate to (I know I did!):

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.