by Mike Telin
Bosnian-born guitarist Denis Azabagić has won first prize in virtually every classical guitar competition in the world. He opens the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society’s Masters Series with a ticketed concert on Saturday, October 1 at 7:30 at First Unitarian Church of Cleveland in Shaker Heights (see the Calendar Listings for details), and will give a free master class there on Sunday at 1 pm. We reached him by telephone in Chicago, where he is on the faculty of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at the Roosevelt University.
Mike Telin: How are things going in Chicago?
Denis Azabagić: Busy! I am head of the department now and there is a lot of teaching.
MT: A friend of mine referred to you as the King of Competitions because you have been awarded 24 prizes. How did winning these prizes help to establish your professional career?
DA: I was fortunate to be successful at the competitions, and it was also a way for me to make money. It was great to be able to combine the practicing, performing and then winning the prizes, especially when you are a student. But those competitions also gave me the opportunities for recordings, like the NAXOS recording. Especially winning the Guitar Foundation of America competition was a fantastic help in establishing the beginning of my career in the US, because as part of the prize I got a 50-plus concert tour, and it was a great opportunity to present yourself all over the US and Canada. It’s funny because I was just talking about this with my wife.
MT: You mentioned you wife, Eugenia Moliner. The two of you have a flute and guitar duo, Cavatina Duo. In an interview I read, you spoke about the influence that her teacher had on you when you were both students in the Netherlands. How has this influenced your own teaching?
DA: Whatever you learn you pass it on, of course. Her teacher, Jo Hagen, really opened up the music to me. [I began to think about] guitar writing like an orchestral score, so I could assign different instruments to every voice in a composition. It just helps overall to analyze the music and to listen better to every voice, motifs and colors, and what you are going to do with them. It was great teaching that I received, and it helps not only with my teaching but also in the performances.
MT: You also talked about the difference between playing a solo recital and a chamber music recital: you specifically mentioned taking rhythmic liberties.
DA: I like taking liberties, but you cannot take the liberty and say “Oh, I’m free here”, and if someone asks you to change something and you are not able to do it, and then it is not a liberty, it is something that I call inadequacy. You have to understand what is going on with the piece, and then you can take the rhythm and stretch it any way that you want because you understand exactly what you are doing. I have no problem with taking liberty as long as there is an understanding of what you are doing.
MT: You have a great program, but I couldn’t help but notice that Ivanovic, Thomas and Sor are not only accomplished composers but also accomplished guitar players: do you think it is necessary to play the guitar in order to compose for it?
DA: No it is not necessary, and one of the greatest examples is Rodrigo. He was not a guitarist and yet he wrote fantastic music for guitar. Sometimes he would write things that were on the verge of or just beyond the possibility of playing. Guitarists need to make some decisions there, but nevertheless the guitar was very close to him and he was surrounded with many great players like the Romero’s. But to go back to your question, it is not necessary but it is helpful.
An interesting thing is that a very good friend, Sergio Assad, told me he had plans to teach a composition course for the guitar. Not just composition in general but composition for the guitar — a little bit more specialized. The thing is that if you understand the possibilities and at the same time understand the limits of the instrument, it will help you.
So the composers you mentioned: Ivanovich was my teacher in Sarajevo, and Alan Thomas is a friend as well as a great composer and guitar player. They understand the instrument and then they can exploit the advantages that the guitar has. For example, tremolo is a fantastic effect on the guitar: it is a simple concept and yet it delivers so much. Carlos Rafael Rivera also understands the guitar very well as in his piece Whirler of the Dance which is on my NAXOS CD, and when you listen to it, you will hear in the last movement how he combines the slurs in the left hand and alternate strokes in the right. Things like that really enhance the possibilities. So no, you don’t have to play it to write for it, but it is necessary to familiarize yourself with the effects of the instrument through the help of a good player.
MT: I also read someplace that it was the Beatles who made you want to start playing the guitar?
DA: As far as I can remember, yes. I remember liking the Beatles so much that I was thinking that I would end up in a rock band.
MT: Did the rock band ever materialize?
DA: I think the closest that I got was that I picked up an electric guitar maybe twice in my life for about five minutes and that was it.
MT: Then what attracted you to the classical guitar?
DA: I think the main reason was my first teacher, Predrag Stankovic. Not only was he my first teacher but he became a friend as well. He was one of those special people that you find in your life who really have a tremendous influence. But he was the one that steered me toward the classical guitar.
The other thing is that I found playing the guitar to be the most challenging thing that I do. Even when I was in school I just felt that with all of the other subjects I would just sit down and learn. But the guitar was far more difficult then any other problem I would encounter with my school work. So I liked the challenge. I think the love of music grew from there. I’m not one of those people who at an instant [found themselves] mesmerized and said that’s that, but things grow on me. I am really astonished by music and its capacity to transmit things like beauty, and its complexity. I was just listening on the radio to some orchestra as I was driving to school and I realized what an immense amount of talent and work is necessary to create an orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony. To have that kind of sound and that kind of unbelievable playing by all of these musicians working together. Then thinking about those who have created the music: what a genius those people are. It is an astonishing aspect of humanity for me to be able to create such a phenomenon that is so inspiring.
MT: Very nice answer.
DA: Thank you.
MT: How is it having two professional musicians in the house? Do you inspire one another?
DA: Very much, I mean we rely on each other. A lot of times working with your spouse can be overwhelming and you get angry with each other. But again I think with maturity you overcome certain things and what stays underneath is that special feeling that you can rely on the other person. There is a certain level of understanding whether it is with accomplishment or with frustration, but just understanding that it’s all part of it. Then there is this tremendous thing of being able to travel and perform with each other; I find that very special.
On top of that, now we are teaching at the same school so we will be sharing our knowledge and passing it on to students, my wife with the flute and me with the guitar, and teaching the pieces that we perform together to the students. So I have a lot of really nice feelings about it.
MT: Congratulations, and again a very nice answer. Is there anything else you would like to tell me?
DA: Well we are talking about having two musicians in the same house, and our son plays the piano. But I do want to talk a little but about this, because when I told you that the guitar was the most challenging thing for me, and I see it through him, because he has the talent and he can do the things, but he just doesn’t want to practice. But then again who wants to practice! But the learning of music is complex — learning the language, the staff, the notes, and where these notes are on any particular instrument. Then the physical aspect of practicing it over and over again so that it stays in your muscle memory. Then over time you can add the overtone of art and interpretation. So it is a very complex process and I think it is so important for children to learn music. It certainly is not our aspiration for our son to become a pianist, but just to have music learning as part of his life. It really opens the brain in a way that is very widespread. You have to have your attention on so many things in order to be able to play one piece. So I would suggest to those who will read this — to suggest to parents — to seriously think of having their children learn music as part of their education.
MT: Yes, and you can take your musical training with you no matter what you end up doing in your life.
DA: Exactly! I recently read this book on the recommendation of my wife, called Mastery by George Leonard, and in it the author talks about having to have the patience to practice. To just do your practice every day without apparent progress, but the progress is there. This is so important for us all to learn, especially living in the American and western society when we are bombarded with the necessity of quick success, and reaching our goals overnight, and things like that because it feels so good. I remember when I came to the US more then a decade ago; opening the yellow pages and finding an ad that said, “learn to play the piano without practice”. I was like, who in the world could put such an ad? I mean how can you lie like that — because it is impossible. But we would all like to get our things in life the easy way but music is something that certainly doesn’t happen like that. And with anything that is worth pursuing there is hard work.
Published on clevelandclassical.com September 27, 2011
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