Grammy award winning classical guitarist Jason Vieaux will be performing Concierto de Aranjuez, by composer Joaquín Rodrigo, with the Abilene Philharmonic on Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the Abilene Convention Center. Vieaux recently answered some questions to help us gain a better insight into his musical background, what to expect at the upcoming concert, and more.
First things first, was there a special spark that led you to learn the guitar?
The spark was just really enjoying music from as early on as I can remember. I spent a considerable amount of time as a 3 or 4 year-old listening to my parents’ record collection. My mother bought me a guitar at age 5, and then once I was taking classical guitar lessons at age 8, that was all I really needed to get going.
Could you briefly explain the type of early training you’ve received?
Growing up in Buffalo, NY, the first music training I remember was recorder class as a first grader, and at the same time my mother took me to a summer class for a couple months where I learned to read, write, and sing solfege from Joel Perry, a local jazz guitarist, using the $50 guitar my mother had bought. About a year or so later, my classical training began in earnest with Buffalo Guitar Quartet member Jeremy Sparks.
What people/series of events do you think helped propel you to be the successful musician you are today?
I think the fact that I practiced on my own, with or without encouragement from my parents, was a key thing. My first full-length recital in Buffalo at age 12 was certainly the event where I noticed the potential enjoyment through performance. It was a big moment for me, because I worked hard on all the pieces for a year. And while I was initially nervous, I remember the pleasant surprise that the nerves went away by the end of the first half.
The guitar has got to be in the category of one of the most beloved instruments across musical genres. As a classical guitarist, could you cover some of the differences between classical acoustic guitar vs. non-classical to help concert attendees know what to expect at the concert?
Well, the two primary things that distinguish classical guitar from any other kind of guitar, acoustic or electric, is 1, the way it’s played, and 2, the music itself. The guitar’s composed repertoire goes all the way back to the Renaissance era, its earliest European ancestor is the vihuela. In the first half of the 19th century the guitar really thrived throughout Europe (crucially, Vienna and Paris, the major music centers) with many composer-performers like Sor, Giuliani, Matiegka, Arcas, many others, until the modernization of the piano drove the guitar underground for a while.
The classical guitar is an acoustic instrument, but it doesn’t have steel strings like a guitar that Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift or James Taylor plays. The classical guitar had gut strings for many years until the 1940s when Albert Augustine developed the nylon string. We also use 4 of our right-hand fingernails to pluck the strings, simply because we are playing music with many different parts (or “voices”) at the same time, not unlike a piano or harp. We don’t have a strap (traditionally) to hold it, we use guitar supports like footstools, and newer supports to keep the neck at an ergonomically sensible angle, as posture is really important for the thousands of hours one has to put in to play well.
Could you tell us about your instrument you’ll be performing with for your Abilene debut?
It’s made by German luthier Gernot Wagner. It is built in what is called a “double-top” style, which basically means it has two very thin soundboards (the part of the guitar’s body that faces the audience) glued together. Between the soundboards is either a middle layer of dozens of thin strips of wood, or a perforated sheet of a synthetic material called Nomex.
At the concert, you’ll be performing the famous work, Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo, with the Abilene Philharmonic. Is it correct to say that this beautiful work is a standard in classical guitar repertoire and if so, why do you think it is so well loved?
Concierto de Aranjuez is probably the most famous work written for the classical guitar, with the only possible exception being the solo piece “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” written by Francisco Tarrega. The 2nd movement of Aranjuez is the one most people recognize, as it has entered popular culture in many ways. Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Led Zeppelin, to name a few, have used the 2nd movement tune to inspire their own works. Its melody is one of the most beloved in classical music of the 20th century. I’m really looking forward to playing it with the Abilene Philharmonic.
Classical guitar is such a versatile performance instrument as it can be performed solo, or collaboratively with quite an array of other instruments/voices. I’ve read you’ve collaborated with other guitarists, sopranos, accordionists, and harpists, just to name a few. What are some of your favorite collaborations?
I love collaborating with any great musician, whether it be Sasha Cooke, Anne Akiko Meyers, Yolanda Kondonassis, etc., but the most enduring partnership is probably with the great Escher String Quartet. We’ve probably played somewhere near 100 performances together by this point, and we always have a blast wherever we are at the moment.
Is there a particular performance in your career thus far that perhaps is special to you?
Any opportunity to play music for people professionally is a great blessing and gift to me, and I don’t judge any one as being more “important” than another. Certainly, in a professional sense, there are certain gigs on major series in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver, Houston, etc., where I’m pleased I was on my “A-game,” as it were – they were good reputation builders for me. However, I try not to judge any event prior to a gig, because it keeps me sharper as a performer.
For me, it doesn’t matter where the event is, it’s more about if I’ve hit a “personal best” on a particular piece or group of recital pieces. I know that I have many Rodrigo performances in store that will be superior to my personal “finest/best,” because I continue to improve my performance on this concerto with each season. So, if my best Rodrigo performance happens to be in say, Peoria, down the line, then that’s one I’m likely to remember more. But really, I’m too busy having fun and enjoying the experience on-stage to spend much time thinking about it.
In 2015 you won a Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for your 2014 solo album, Play. What an inspiring achievement! Can you tell us about the experience collecting your award and a little background on the album itself?
It was a big surprise because I – along with my recording team – had been NARAS voting members for many years, having made 5 commercial recordings. And I had begun to think my work was probably not going to be recognized, because I wasn’t based in New York nor LA, wasn’t on a major label, worked with a smaller “boutique” management, etc, etc. But when “PLAY” got nominated it felt great and somewhat of a relief, and then winning was really just a great surprise and thrill for sure. My wife and I went to LA to attend, so it was a magical couple of days being there and seeing so many heroes walking around, and even meeting a few, like Barry Gibb, Herbie Hancock, a couple of the guys from Mastodon, Lemmy Kilmeister of Motörhead.
You’ve recently released a new album, “Bach Volume 2: Works for Violin” on Azica Records. Can you delve into some of the history behind classical guitarists performing works of Bach?
Andres Segovia is the first guitarist that I know of who really took the plunge tackling Bach on the guitar, with his transcription of the mighty Chaconne from the D Minor Violin Partita. That really opened the floodgates for every major guitarist to put their stamp on so many Bach Lute, Violin, Cello, and even Keyboard works. It’s kind of a guitar tradition, and most musicians welcome and enjoy Bach on the guitar, because he composed 5 major works for the Lute, a Baroque-era instrument which shares a lot of similarities to guitar. These lute suites are standard repertoire for our instrument, and now the cello and violin works are pretty standard as well. I’m really proud of this new record; I think my Bach performance has grown a lot, it’s gotten a little looser and less stuffy, but also more up-tempo in the speedy movements without losing phrasing or structure.
Contributed By Sarah Figueroa/Abilene Philharmonic