Ahead of her Purcell Room concert

Eleftheria Kotzia

GREEK GUITARIST Eleftheria Kotzia has been promoted in some of the most prestigious concert halls throughout the world and has received exposure on a number of media platforms including the BBC and WNYC. She is the dedicatee for music written by composers including Dodgson, Duarte, Bogdanovic and Domeniconi, and has produced discs among which can be found a Gramophone ‘Critic's Choice of the Year’. She made the premiere recordings of both Tippett’s The Blue Guitar and Tavener’s Chant, the latter in a special adaptation made for her by the composer, and participated in a live broadcast of Tavener's Fall and Resurrection at St Paul's Cathedral.

Kotzia began her studies at the National Conservatory in Athens, later attending the Conservatoire National Supérieure in Paris and finally the Guildhall School of Music in London. During her time in France she studied with Alexandre Lagoya, a challenging experience for the then 18 year old: ‘Paris was tough. I was very young and the milieu was totally different. Strangely, I always described it as “going to Europe”. Lagoya could speak Greek, but no one else did so I had to pick the language up very quickly in order to follow my other classes’, says Kotzia. Lagoya’s teaching method was not one Kotzia immediately recalls as being centred on the guitar itself, but she finds other areas on which to extol the virtues of his approach: 'I learnt a lot from him: in particular, the idea of striving for perfection. He was very focussed on the quality and projection of sound. However, he never really showed me how to think for myself; how to be independent. It was all very much “I do this, you do this” - a learning style of imitation. He was a strong man; a very resilient and strong personality. As a student that can crush you a bit; he was more like a very authoritative father figure. At low moments in my career, I have turned to his example and got strength from his strength’.

More practical instruction for Kotzia was to come when she arrived in London. In that period the city was a great place to be for an aspiring guitarist, and Kotzia found herself frequently having lessons with David Russell, Nigel North and Timothy Walker. Her decision to ultimately remain in the capital, however, was not one she had necessarily planned on making: ‘1 came back to London not by choice; I just wanted to stay for an Academic year, to do the British composer repertoire and learn how to transcribe from French tablature, things that I hadn’t done before. But when I returned to Paris to continue my teaching job at the Ecole de Musique, we, all the staff, went on strike because of changes in working conditions. We lost, and those on strike were fired. So I followed up a scholarship offer I had from the Guildhall School of Music to stay another year. In that second year in London professional opportunities arose: I got an agent and was asked to play in the Purcell Room and St John’s, Smith Square among other things’.

On March 29 Kotzia will perform at the Purcell Room. Although she has appeared here on a number of occasions since making her London debut in 1985, for Kotzia performances at the South Bank require a particular programme: ‘For a number of years now I have treated playing here as a bit more special. I can do things in London that would be more difficult to do elsewhere in smaller places, and I usually use the opportunity to present some new works as well’. In addition to solo repertoire including Villa Lobos, Isaias Savio, Maximo Pujol, Albeniz, Dyens and Rodrigo, Kotzia's recital will feature collaborative performances with Sonia Grane (voice), Sheida Davis (cello), Emma Murphy (recorder) and Gerard Rundell (vibes/bongos). A further highlight of these ensemble performances is the presence of two premieres: Ernesto Cordero’s Cantata al Valle de Mexico for voice, guitar, cello & recorder; and Ney Rosauro’s Toccata and Divertimento for vibraphone & guitar, works receiving their first performances in the UK and London respectively.

Cordero will also have a second item on the programme: Dinga y Mandinga for recorder, guitar, cello and bongos, a work Kotzia premiered on a similar occasion in 1997. Cordero's premiere this time around, however, is a work that has in fact been with Kotzia for some time: ‘Cordero wrote Dinga y Mandinga in 1995, and he sent me the music along with the Cantata al Valle de Mexico. I had ignored this other piece until now, since I didn't have a singer for the ‘97 concert, but I thought that I would do it this time since the players are there’. Both pieces were originally scored to include flute, but for her Purcell Room concert Kotzia has decided to make an instrument substitution: ‘The recorder was my idea; I felt that the quality of this instrument would work better with the music. I emailed the composer and asked if I could use recorder instead of flute for his Dinga y Mandinga. Then I thought, why should I have flute for his other piece in the programme? (Cantata al Valle de Mexico) Why don’t we try them both with recorder? He [Cordero] said “hmm... interesting, let's try it”.

One issue Kotzia is keen to raise at this stage is the accessibility of the contemporary ensemble repertoire she will be performing, pointing out that the connotations of ‘new’ can often cause listeners to make certain assumptions about the music. Her description here of another more recent composition in her programme can serve to diffuse some of those preconceptions: ‘Brazilian composer-percussionist Rosauro is very well known. He is a superb percussionist and has written a huge repertoire for it. I heard a concerto of his for marimba and orchestra, which I thought was fantastic. Then later, by chance, I discovered this other piece of his [Toccata and Divertimento] for vibraphone and guitar. The work is based on the mood and popular Brazilian melodies found in the desafio, a kind of musical game from North-eastern Brazil in which two people sing and make rhymes, challenging each other to create a story on a given theme’. Kotzia will also perform Villa Lobos's Bachianas Brazileiras No. 5 and Modinha with Sonia Grane, a collaboration that began after Kotzia saw the postgraduate singer from the Royal Academy perform in a concert celebrating Villa Lobos’s music.

Although this recital is perhaps slightly atypical for Kotzia, having predominantly worked as a soloist over the years, her experience as a chamber musician is nonetheless extensive, collaborating with artists such as Leonidas Kavakos, Clio Gould, Patricia Rozario, Levon Parikian, Judith Hall and Robert Max. It is interesting to draw on Kotzia’s experience in this area to learn something of the guitar's interaction with other instruments: ‘If you collaborate let’s say with a cellist - I did some UK concerts with Alexander Boyarski and Robert Max - the relationship doesn’t really last, because they don’t care for us so much. If you have the option to play wonderful Brahms sonatas with your pianist, or go back to your trio and perform Beethoven, you don’t really want to have a steady concert programme with a guitarist. This may be, but Kotzia’s collaborative history highlights engagements with a number of instrumental genres. The collaborations themselves are perhaps short, but together they speak of the guitar's inherent eclecticism. Moreover, there is something to be said for what defines a short collaboration: Kotzia’s work with Robert Max,took place over a period of three years, which, we might consider prolonged.

Despite the fact that ‘here Kotzia cites repertoire as a potential shortcoming in these instrumental relationships, her ideas are not directed at inadequate ensemble music for guitar so much as the reasons for why other instrumentalists are likely to remain close to their own repertoire. That said, there is an area of the ensemble repertoire that Kotzia believes could support a more permanent relationship: ‘I can never understand why there is not a famous guitar and voice duo, there's some fantastic repertoire for that. But singers always want to aspire to opera. Their dream isn't to work with a guitarist, but to do Carmen perhaps’.

Probing a little deeper into the practicalities of working with other instrumentalists, Kotzia also touches on the subject of amplification: ‘In the past I have never used amplification performing with cello or violin. But now I would, even in the Cordero pieces for instance, which are very well written to allow the instruments to be heard equally. I once did a series of concerts with Luigi de Filippi, the then leader of the London Mozart players. In one particular concert he pretty much drowned me, because he got so carried away and was projecting his sound so much. Even the best players need to be extra careful with balance. It must be frustrating to feel you have to play mp or pp when you would rather ff and mp. But amplification doesn’t necessarily solve the problem either: they hear you playing louder and then they play louder still’.

The role of programming is something Kotzia finds lots of points to talk on, but central to her is the need to remain open to a number of programming alternatives: ‘Some people are intrigued by an unfamiliar programme; others are equally fearful about the new: they want to have more of the same thing. Right from the beginning I have always included familiar repertoire with more challenging pieces. Nothing terribly avant-garde, but we need to hear new or lesser known music several times to appreciate it’. So what does Kotzia make of the demands of a main-stream audience such as the one the South Bank is likely to attract?: ‘I really couldn't say. A concert I did in 1997 at the South Bank was sold out. Five years ago, in the same place, when I gave a recital and had a guest singer for some numbers, it was a rather good hall. I think the popularity of concerts has gone down a bit since then maybe’.

Eleftheria Kotzia

Although programming is clearly important in matters of audiences, one of the outcomes of twentieth-century music is a change in the pecking order where composers and performers are concerned. Today it is performers who are the icons of the music industry, and we are frequently attracted to them rather than the programmes they promote. A performer such as Kotzia can supply an interesting commentary on this phenomenon: ‘Very successful performers can take their appeal with them to any performance. I recently saw Barenboim perform some Schoenberg. I think the audience gave all their attention to this in every way demanding piece. He introduced the work, very cleverly, in an unsophisticated manner. Barenboim is such a personality that he made Schoenberg feel familiar to everybody there: the charisma that he has and the pianist and conductor that he is was enough to make the hall feel awesome. I think Bream had this as well: people would go to hear him regardless. He would play Henze, but people would still go and they would buy anything he produced because he was Bream. He managed to make that same connection with people’.

The performer's position in this sense has been evident for some time, but Kotzia notes a change in the way performers at the top end are currently working, as she explains: ‘Even great performers, or rather the ‘big names’, who can perhaps afford to take risks don’t anymore. The period when you had players like Bream taking all these risks no longer exists. I think the combination of big artist and standard repertoire is in for the moment. New composers have very little chance. There's not enough money out there for performers and concert promoters to take risks’.

Kotzia’s recording catalogue is marked for a number of features. Firstly there is the Greek identity, which is evident on almost every disc she has produced. The notion of a performer including an element of nationalism in their repertoire is a familiar one, an expectation even, particularly among those musicians from countries whose composers are not so well represented. But when Kotzia decided early on to promote Greek music, she met certain obstacles: ‘When I did my second disc the idea to include Greek composers was for me a very natural one. But the record company said “Who knows these composers?”. I was scratching my head and saying “But these are very well known people in my country”. Nowadays a lot of performers commis-sion composers from their own country perhaps, but when I wanted to make this disc it wasn't so common’. In order to improve her ‘pitch to the record company, Kotzia pursued the idea of having recognised composers write Greek-inspired music so that these new works could be placed alongside the lesser known Greek composers: Bogdanovic and Domeniconi have been among those to be supplied with a Greek-orientated compositional brief.

Kotzia has also come to be identified with Tippett's The Blue Guitar, which received its premiere recording from her and was subsequently awarded ‘Critic’s Choice Recording of the Year’ by Gramophone: ‘There were a lot of companies who didn’t want to do the Tippett, simply because it was very modern. Let's not forget that all the composers except Villa Lobos on that disc were contemporary or unknown. In the end I had to find a sponsor. I wanted to record the Tippett and the other works since it had all been part of my repertoire for a long time’, says Kotzia. And has Kotzia ever wondered why Bream didn't record it himself?: ‘I think if Bream had wanted to do it he would have done it. He could do anything he wanted, he was Bream’. Despite the fact that her disc The Blue Guitar was clearly a great success, its future for the time being is uncertain: ‘Now my record company doesn’t want to repress the CD: according to them, CDs don’t sell anymore. In a sense it has become a sort of collector's item, and I have heard here and there that it sells for quite a lot of money. So then I ask the company “Why don't you release it on mp3?” They say they are thinking about it, but they have been thinking about it for four years already’.

Among Kotzia’s other roles can be found festival director and authoress. Her editicational book Cahier de ma Guitar has been pressed in French three times, and the second volume, Cahier no2 - Guitarobics, has recently appeared in both French and English. There is also lots of performance and recording activity pending for Kotzia at this time. including a concerto written for her by Rene Eespere: Clavi in Crusem-Visionis. For more information and details on upcoming events: www.eleftheria.info

Guy Traviss - Classical Guitar Magazine