GuitarWorks 2012

Alexander Dunn Celebrates 20 Years in Victoria

GuitarWorks – a self-review on 20 years of teaching and performing in Canada


Feb. 11, 2012
University of Victoria
Hovhaness Spirit of Trees (guitar, harp)
Carter Luimen (guitar, mandolin, harp, vibraphone, trumpet, trombone)
Maw Six Interiors (high voice, guitar)
Crumb Quest (guitar, harp, soprano saxophone, contrabass, 2 percussionists)

On Feb. 11, I had the pleasure of presenting GuitarWorks – likely the most adventurous and interesting guitar program in Canada this year. It consisted of Hovhaness’ Spirit of Trees, Elliot Carter’s Luimen, Maw’s Six Interiors, and Crumb’s Quest, all with challenging guitar parts. Musically, technically (and logistically), this concert was a salvo of arduous demands, aided and abetted by faculty and students at the University of Victoria. I learned that using outstanding students lends a certain youthful vigor to the proceedings, and here proved an apt choice; the faculty that joined us were splendid.

The Hovhaness piece came about as a last-minute cancellation of Crumb’s Ghosts of Alhambra (baritone, guitar, percussion) threw the program into disarray. Although I had already learned Ghosts, the baritone panicked and withdrew, leaving a sizeable gap in the concert (look for the Canadian premiere of Ghosts next year). These kinds of cancellations are not especially welcome when one is swamped with organizational details and a heavy practice schedule. I frantically searched for other works to fill the gap such as Henze Carillon, Récitatif, Masque (as I already had harp and mandolin) or perhaps a large solo work. But since I was already working with Lady Hinako Hovhaness on my editing and copying of an unknown work for guitar and choir (this will receive its Canadian premiere next year), Spirit of Trees came to mind. It provided a fascinating contrast with the Carter, is an absolutely stunning piece, and fit the time requirements perfectly. And so it was put together the week of the concert, but nonetheless came out beautifully.

Carter’s Luimen, however, required ample preparation and contains challenging, even brutally difficult parts for mandolin, harp, vibraphone and guitar, plus trumpet and trombone. It is a scintillating, ten-minute experience of archetypal Carter, which I described in a newspaper preview as ‘tough and resilient, with an aggressive beauty and broad expressive palette’. Playing Luimen is an illuminating experience, as detailed by my good friend David Tanenbaum. Presenting it is an infrequent experience, but knowing Shard (the solo work imbedded within Luimen) is convenient for programming solo concerts. I was reminded of my performance of Carter’s Syringa, at the Aspen Music Festival, coached by the composer. Upon arriving in Aspen, Eliot Fisk asked me to play Syringa, which also has a prickly solo part. That challenge was a personally exhilarating and defining moment for me. Performing ensemble Carter is akin to roaming a dangerous, beautiful landscape where wonders and delights lurk amongst great peril. Play at your own risk!

Nicholas Maw ‘s output for guitar consists of a curious, interesting work – Suite for Guitar, the visionary Music of Memory (far too involved to delve into here, but suffice it to say that MoM is an miraculous work and easily one of the masterpieces of the guitar repertoire), and Six Interiors, for high voice and guitar on texts of Thomas Hardy. Of course, the poems in themselves are high genius. Maw’s setting pits a rich and varied, albeit demanding guitar accompaniment against his typically, dark, intense, and operatic narrative. Six Interiors clearly is one the best guitar song cycles that we have. It requires great reservoirs of energy and depth to reveal its beauties, but is well worth the effort and deserves rapt attention.

Crumb’s Quest is a work I have been thinking about for years. As a student, I dreamed of playing a work of Crumb after immersing myself in Ancient Voices of Children, piano music, chamber and orchestral music. I was very fortunate to work with the brilliant soprano Jan de Gaetani in Aspen, who championed Crumb and was an exemplary role model for any aspiring musician. As David Starobin began drawing works from Crumb, the desire to perform this composer grew intolerable. Some problems presented themselves, though. How would I organize an ensemble of harp, soprano saxophone, contrabass, and two players behind a mountain of percussion instruments, some of which did not exist in Victoria? And both the Crumb and Carter require a dedicated conductor. But problems dissolved as the integrity and enthusiasm of the group became evident in rehearsal. Quest is indeed a journey through a dreamworld of gorgeous resonance and memory. Snippets of recalled melodies or quotations float through a colorostic haze. A virtuosic guitar part punctuates rhythmic gestures. And the ever-present spirituality of Crumb’s music, as in Hovhaness, makes its haunting presence felt when a fragmented Amazing Grace, whispered by melodica, floats quietly over the bass, harp and tam tam’s deep notes. Quest is a telling study in virtuosity vs. meditation and is more powerful than a prescription drug.

As I sought to organize a concert that would be mark twenty years at UVic, I immediately sensed that taking a path of least musical resistance was not in the cards or the stars. It need be a program that blended musicianship, virtuosity, and high stakes. Also, a university setting allowed for creative programming – I would probably never offer this program to the general public. As my teachers Oscar Ghiglia and Pepe Romero always demonstrated, solid musical preparation, technical security, a daredevil approach to performance, along with excellent music, was the only route to pursue. GuitarWorks was the kind of program only undertaken by the very brave and foolhardy. But the gambit paid off. While there was no money to pay musicians, the date was forced too early by the university, I went through two conductors and three bassists, rental parts were promised and then had to be personally funded at the final hour, harp logistics were impossible, there was no Appalachian Hammered Dulcimer and an electronic keyboard with a cimbalom patch had to be substituted, and an ongoing litany of headaches and nightmares too numerous to mention, GuitarWorks nonetheless came off due to sheer will power and the dedication and imagination that need be summoned in undertaking a project of this magnitude – due, in no small part, to the fantastic skills and bonhomie of the ensemble groups. After last years’ concert with dancers and video projections, I vowed to never again subject myself to this kind of organizational irritation – but I’m already in planning stages for another ensemble concert of brilliant and difficult modern music to present to the deserving Victoria audience. Stay tuned.

Some personal reflections on a performing and teaching career in Canada.

Teaching in Victoria has been an enriching experience. I am honored to say that it has been long regarded as a focal North American guitar centre, and is held I high esteem regionally, nationally and internationally. In building this esteem, an intensive pedagogical approach was needed. Perpetual first-hand exposure to the international guitar standard is essential. Because Victoria is on an island, it is easy to get caught up in ones own thoughts. If you never leave the small town of your opinions, ones self-esteem can increase tenfold. This phenomenon is also true in other places where guitar, often studied as a painfully solo vehicle with little connection to other instruments or voice, can impart a narrow musical worldview. The most effective antidote is live exposure to excellence. Videos and Internet do not exert the same learning power as personal observation, and so I created a concert series that drew a mixture of international players and up-and-coming virtuosos, many of them international competition winners. It was critical that the standard be high. This allowed students to enjoy a solid, no-nonsense approach to technique and musicianship, while enjoying exposure to many different players and repertoire. The combination proved successful and Victoria has, as a result, become a sought-after place for serious guitar study. Strong connections to the Guitar Foundation of America, CSU Summer Arts, Boston GuitarFest, and other guitar festivals, plus the respect of colleagues, have laid for Victoria a stable foundation.

In building the programs at the Conservatory and UVic, My PhD dissertation on de Visée lent a background to performance practice and historical awareness, particularly of lute instruments and baroque guitar. Activities on early to mid-nineteenth century guitars afforded students the opportunity to learn the Romantic repertoire and experiment upon the four period guitars in my studio (a baroque guitar is arriving momentarily). Standard repertoire has always formed a strong part of teaching, but I have avoided what I consider cliché or overplayed pieces. Working with Pepe Romero opened my eyes to the Romantic repertoire – until that time I was playing only Renaissance, baroque, and contemporary music. It was certainly a thrill to play recitals and concertos in a US tour with Los Romeros, and performing duos on a regular basis with Pepe is still an enthralling experience!

I am proud of the successes of former Victoria players who have gone on to careers in the guitar world. As an acknowledgement to these fine guitarists, I have set up a small series within the Victoria Guitar Societyshowcasing their talents.

Over the years, my teaching has advanced by observing and absorbing principals from other players. David Russell, in particular, continues to be a sterling role model. Nowadays, the standard has risen dramatically, and it is common to hear superb playing at festivals and competitions. That is why it is a priority to continually improve by ‘coming back to Victoria’ as much as possible. Living in an area that is somewhat isolated, it is of great importance to never rest on ones laurels, avoid self-congratulation or falling prey to the mistaken belief that one ‘knows it all’. One complaint however: there can be an attitude than what takes place in Victoria is of lesser importance or influence than what occurs in larger urban centres. True effort and continual self-assessment are the weapons against such bias.

Dedicated students have aided studying the dynamics between physicality and creativity. Posture, breathing, and control are obvious tools in developing technique, but in themselves do not enforce positive learning habits. Similarly, pitch recognition, sight-reading, and intellectual/critical apparatus need to be acquired in clear conjunction with efficient physicality. And in addition to these dynamics, establishing a reliable and repeatable road map of responses, muscle memory, and sure thinking is of prime importance. And so while I may hold a reputation as a ‘technique nazi’ (I learned about this from a student!), my approach attempts to synthesize mental, musical and physical aspects to an individually tailored package whose benefits are not apparent without dedicated work.

It has been a pleasure and honor in building one of the strongest guitar centres in Canada, but as an ‘international resident’ (I hold three citizenships – Canada, US and Mexico), my interests do not stop at the borders. North America has a strong guitar presence in the world, and boasts many unique offerings. Good players and teachers are building new and robust guitar centres in Europe, Asia, Russia, and other parts of the world. An international standard is on the rise, and I will continue to work for Victoria to be part of this marvelous growth. Praise and compliments only fuel a desire to continue learning from the young and experienced alike.