SoundBoard Interview with Steve Marsh June 2007

Eleftheria KotziaWhen Eleftheria Kotzia made her London debut in 1985, the Times reported her as having “skill, a beguiling tone and an ability to vary her touch with fluency.” Since then, these characteristics have evolved to a high degree and, over the years, her extensive touring of Europe, North Africa, Canada, the U.S.A., South America, Australia, and the Far East has instilled a confidence in her playing usually only acquired from widespread experience of this type of exposure. When on stage she has that indefinable and mystifying quality we have chosen to call “charisma,” and this was much in evidence in a recent concert she gave in the Oval Hall of Sheffield’s City Hall (Yorkshire, U.K.). A fewweeks after that concert, we met up for a drink and a chat where we talked, amongst other things, about her views on guitar courses, her recordings, commissioned works, working with composers, and guitar students. First, though, I began by asking her views on amplification and why she had chosen not to use the amplification available in the Oval Hall, a hall which is notoriously unsuitable for classical guitar from an acoustic aspect:

EK: I knew that the hall was quite dry. When I arrived there, the organizers said that I would have to have amplification. Well, we tried it. I got the impression that the sound engineer was more accustomed to setting up for electric guitarists and when we did try the amplification, it produced a horrible metallic sound; naturally, I didn’t I like it. There was very limited time, since I did not arrive at the hall until about 35 minutes before the concert, so I didn’t have very much time to become “manic” about it. My concert was the last in the chamber music series being held at the Sheffield City Hall. When I asked if the other performers had used amplification (pianists, quartets, etc.), and was told, “No,” I said, why should I use it if they were quite happy with the sound of the otherconcerts? I think most times the intimacy and range of colors of the instrument are lost with amplification. The ear adjustsin volume. I’ve played without amp in St. David’s in Cardiff and in the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, London, and these arehuge halls. People told me afterwards that they could hearthe guitar’s nuances right at the back; it’s more the physical presence that we don’t have, but the sound is still there.
   The guitar is a poetic instrument. It can touch and move by its timbre. Part of its charm and magic is its fragility! I think, over the last few years, classical guitarists have been panicking about the volume; they talk about construction, projection of the instrument, and so on. Guitar makers seem obsessed with making things louder at the expense of losing the characteristics of our instrument. A lot of players these days are not so careful about studying the projection and quality of their sound because they think that, if there is a problem, then they will just use a microphone and that in a recording studiothe engineer will do magic with technology. When I was a student it was a very important element to be able to produce a very large and beautiful sound and to be able to fill the hall yourself, without all this technology. I don’t understand why leading and influential guitarists such as John Williams need the use of a microphone, even in concerts of six or seven hundred people. When I go to a guitar concert, I don’t want to hear a piano concert! You know, where there is all this volume, it’s as if there is a piano out there.

SM: The big attraction of the guitar, for most players, is the natural beauty of the sound of the instrument. I’ve attended quite a few guitar recitals where amplification has been used, and none hasever matched up to the natural beauty of the instrument.
Exactly. Recently, in a festival in France, we were playing with a mike, which was O.K. as we were playing in the open air. Similarly, when playing with an orchestra, that is O.K., of course. Without it, the instrument will be drowned out. Playing in that hall in Sheffield, for me there was no question of using amplification just because the hall is dry.

SM: I remember sitting towards the rear of the Royal Festival Hall in London at a Segovia concert and the first few bars he played seemed incredibly quiet, but, after a very short time, one’s ears got accustomed to the sound and the volume seemed to grow as the concert got underway.
And I do remember Julian Bream in Paris, in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées—what a treat! Yes, the sound of the guitar comes out of the silence. The instrument draws you; the guitar cannot come to you, you have to go to the instrument. I think, in a sense, the guitarist should reinforce the magic of the instrument because that’s what separates us from the other instruments. I’ve worked with chamber ensembles. I remember the cellist, the flutist, and the violin partners were very intrigued by the colors of the guitar. I was not going to compete with the violinist’s or the cellist’s legato or vibrato, but when they heard all the coloring available from the guitar, they were amazed, and when you have amplification all this magic is lost.

SM: Let’s talk about your recordings. It’s noticeable that, with the exception of your South American CD, all your other recordings always feature at least one Greek composer. Is this your own idea or do the record companies insist upon the program?
The record companies I have worked with never insist; the programming is always my own idea. In my first recording, The Blue Guitar, the music of a wonderful friend of mine who died, Kyriakos Giorginakis, was included, and then music by my teacher, Dimitri Fampas, but this was only a small part of the program, alongside the Tippett, the Villa-Lobos, the South American and the French works. I wanted to put into the program something Greek that I love. But the CD Mediterraneo, my “Hellenic/Greek” CD, was a very conscious choice. This recording was made more than ten years or so ago and the programs on recordings at that time tended to feature Spanish and South American music. Now, of course, we have CDs with American, Russian, Finnish, and Czech guitar music. I felt I wanted to reveal the richness of my home country’s music. I wanted to make a recording of only Greek composers; to my surprise, though, I found out that hardly any record company wanted to hear them! They said “Who knows Giorginakis, Theodorakis, Fampas, Miliaresis, Mamagakis?” They were not well known at all, so no one would be interested to buy.
   So I had this idea to get composers who were well-known, especially in the guitar world, to write for me, and so I approached Duarte, Dodgson, Biberian, McGuire, and various other composers, and tried to get them inspired by Greece —by the music, by giving them mythology books, poetry books, and so forth. Jack (Duarte) and Dodgson, who are featured on the CD, were immediately thrilled by this idea, and in fact most of the composers I called upon were delighted by it. John Tavener’s piece Chant was also featured on this recording; this work had already been written, but when he heard that I could sing, he made a special adaptation for me.
   The whole idea of having composers to write with the inspiration of Greece has been because I couldn’t put together an album of only Greek composers. So the end product was a mixture of “known” composers alongside the “unknown” Greek composers, all of it inspired by the traditions of Greece. I was absolutely thrilled and honored that the composers I mentioned and, later, Bogdanović and Domeniconi, wrote for me; all these works are now published.

SM: When you made the premiere recording of Tippet’s The Blue Guitar, did you feel any sense of pressure at all? For instance, Julian Bream’s recording of Britten’s Nocturnal set the benchmark for all other performances, so did this influence your perspective of suchan important piece as this at all?
EK: No, I didn’t think about it like this at all. I just was already playing The Blue Guitar in concerts; it was part of my repertoire. Of course, Julian Bream had already given the first performance. The British Council approached me to give concerts in Greece and they suggested that I should do an English work. I alreadywas playing English works such as the Britten and Bennett, butI wanted to play something new and I started learning The Blue Guitar. So I committed myself to a performance of this challenging work, and from then on, it became part of my repertoire, and I played it in many concerts everywhere.
   The difficulty was to convince the record company that didn’t want me to record it, because they were saying to me, “Who will buy a piece like this?” It was only at this stage that I realized I was doing a work by a major British composer and a major guitar piece. I had to do it well, because it was my first
CD, and also I had to try and do it full justice, as there was no model for my ear to base it on. I’d worked through it with a conductor friend of mine, I’d played it to some guitarist friends to ask their opinion, and so on. I tried to do my best. The whole thing about The Blue Guitar, I think, was that it was announced in the Times and then Gramophone, and made such a big “do,” and after that I was asked many times to perform it because of the praise it received …

SM: You received an award from The Gramophone, didn’t you?
EK: Yes, but it was for the whole CD called The Blue Guitar, not just for the Tippett piece! it was the “Critic’s Choice” in The Gramophone.

SM: Aside from the ones you’ve commissioned yourself, you’ve had quite a number of works dedicated to you; it must be very satisfying and pleasurable when that happens, especially from “known” composers such as Edmundo Vasquez and Carlo Domeniconi.
EK: Oh yes! For instance, Vasquez wrote something for cello and guitar; I didn’t necessarily ask him to write it for me; probably it came after talking together, when I said I needed more cello/guitar repertoire pieces.

SM: This is his Cantos de amor olvidados?
Yes. However this work is not inspired by Greek music by the way, it is inspired by old tunes brought to South American by the Spanish conquistadores.

Eleftheria Kotzia and student

SM: When you do commission a work, how closely do you work with the composer; do you ever have to drastically change parts due to impracticalities?
You can put suggestions to the composers; for instance, many years ago I played a work in London by I. Haliasas, a Greek composer, and in some sections I put in some guitar effects that were not written in the score and that eliminated some short section. So I called him, and said I wanted to do “this and that,” and I played it to him down the telephone, and he said that it sounded much nicer that way, with these effects. So, a lot of times composers are very receptive to ideas. With the John Duarte piece …

SM: Musikones?
EK: Yes, with that piece, the original order was different, the tuning of the last piece was not the same, and I suggested the title. When I asked for the piece, I said that the music of ancient Greece and the folklore could be very appealing, and somehow he took aboard some of these ideas and some of the music was inspired by ancient Greece and the folklore. With Stephen Dodgson it was different; we changed a couple of the fingerings and positions, but mostly he was very precise and didn’t want things amended, even if they presented difficulties for the player.
    In the Domeniconi piece (Krysea Phorminx), I didn’t interfere at all, but Domeniconi changed his mind two or three times about various sections. In the end, just before I was going to record, the session had to be postponed for a month because the day before the recording he rang me up to say that he had made various changes in the score!

SM: We’ve had that experience with a couple of the editions from your series haven’t we? [Eleftheria Kotzia has her own published series, which she edits, within Lathkill Music Publishers, which Steve Marsh runs].
EK: Yes, indeed. [laughs] When something is going to be published, it seems to make some composers think again about the final, the end-product, and they come out with changes. I remember some years ago premiering in London a piece for violin and guitar by Houghton. He was sending me letters about little changes between this note and that note, just because a premiere was coming up. But I think the pressure is even stronger when it is going to be printed; it is for posterity.

SM: It's got to be quite frustrating, surely, to have spent a long time working on a composition and then the composer starts to make changes here and there?
EK: Well, to take the Evangelos Boudounis piece, the Spring Songs—I recorded it in my CD Fuoco! according to the manuscript, but changes were made after the recording but before it was published, so if you see the published version, there are differences. When I told Evangelos about this, he just told me not to worry. Vasquez initially wrote the Cantos de amor for cello and guitar, but then he changed it to bass flute and guitar, and then, when he decided to publish it in the cello and guitar version, he made quite a few changes to both instruments that he feels strongly about. So there we are! Do they say original version? What matters is the final product!

SM: As well as solo recitals, you've given many concerts with other musicians—violinists, cellists, flautists, singers, and so on. Have you any plans to record any of these works, because, up to now, everything you've recorded has been for solo guitar, hasn't it?
EK: I would love to put some of the repertoire I've played with other musicians on CD, but these days you have to deal all the practicalities of the record companies; they ask where they will sell it, who will buy it, how to promote it. There are a lot of people buying solo guitar recordings and the record companies don't seem to know where the guitar will fit into chamber music. I am thinking that this might have to be a private enterprise, and fix the whole thing myself. Before Fuoco! came out with Harmonia Mundi, a chamber music program was my suggestion, and, once again, solo guitar became the choice for the recording. But I would love to do a recording of duos, trios, quartets, etc.

SM: Most of your recordings tend to be “themed;” so there's been a Mediterranean one, a South American one, a twentieth century one, and now, with Fuoco!, you've returned to the Mediterranean.
EK: Yes, you are right, I prefer themed CDs to single-composer ones. I feel there can be more variety. However, the Mediterraneo one was Greek inspired, while Fuoco! is Mediterranean-themed and features Spanish, Greek, French, Italian music, and so forth.

SM: It is good to hear the Roussel piece Segovia on your disc. This is such a wonderful miniature for guitarists, but you never hear it in concerts.
EK: It is hard to play well; it is so small—two pages! I don't know why players don't play it, though; it is a good piece, but it does have a reputation of being very difficult.

SM: You've just returned from teaching at the two-week guitar course in the Château de Ligoure in Limoges, France. Do you teach at many guitar courses?
EK: I do two or three a year. This year, they were in Germany and France, and I thoroughly enjoy doing these; the one in France lasts for two weeks, and I think this is a good length for this type of course.

SM: I agree. I teach at an annual guitar course in the south of England, but that lasts only one week, and not only does time seem to fly by but, also, the students are just about getting to grips with the many ensemble works we study and then it is home time! It would be good to just have those extra few days.
EK: Well, I think it depends on the type of the course. There are some guitar courses/festivals that have a lot of activity—every day lunchtime and evening concerts, lectures, music shop, etc., and of course, master classes, orchestra, ensembles, and sometimes even private lessons. So much happening gives a fantastic excitement to the festival, a fabulous buzz. I remember that, at the Stetson International Workshop in DeLand, Florida, a course that I absolutely loved, we performers and all the students of the course even had the chance to go out for dinner in a typical restaurant of the area! So, it is natural that so much energy can last for a shorter period.
    A course like the one I did recently, in the Château de Ligoure, is structured differently. It is smaller in numbers (thirty) and it feels like a family. There were fewer evening concerts, just four, but there was more private one-to-one tuition. In fact, every two days, an hour's lesson for each student, with the same teacher! The participation for chamber groups was unlimited, and was rehearsed always by the same teacher, every day. And then, of course, there is the orchestra. So, there was less “action,” there was more time to “digest” and to meditate on what's been said and experienced during the lessons.
    There is so much on offer, you know, and I find that students can feel a bit lost if their education is not yet solid. They hear different impressions and beliefs; sometimes, in a course, four or five different guitarists/teachers express completely different opinions from those the student had previously heard. It is inspiring, but it can also be quite confusing for some.
    In the past you had one or two teachers who you were relying upon for your progress. You trusted them, and let them guide you and help you with your progress. I keep saying to my pupils, when they are confused, that every guitarist has a different opinion and every human being is different, so conviction and choice are what you have to seek. You cannot expect, because so-and-so expressed an opinion, that it is necessarily the correct one for you. Students must decide for themselves which paths to follow.

SM: It’s like the student hearing the same work being played by six or seven top players. They’ll hear six or seven different interpretations, sometimes very diverse, and if they are studying that particular piece and are looking for interpretational ideas, they need to decide which player or players most suited their way of thinking and take their motivation from there.
EK: Yes, they must be guided by their teachers, but in the end they must make up their own minds and use their own opinions and follow their own paths.