Artist Spotlight and Interview: Katarzyna Smolarek

The brilliant Polish concert guitarist, Katarzyna Smolarek is becoming known for both her breathtaking virtuosity and her magnificent interpretations. In addition to studying at the Mozarteum in Austria and concertizing throughout Europe, Katarzyna has been awarded over 20 international competition prizes over a very short period of time. The silver lining to sheltering in place in Europe is that she was able to find time to sit down and share her experience, philosophies, and wise advise with Six String Journal readers. Enjoy!

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Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?

I started playing the guitar when I was 8 years old. My parents just signed me up for a music school and I think at the time no one was expecting that I would become a professional musician in the future. With time, I developed a love for playing music and I decided to dedicate my life to it.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

I enjoy playing all kinds of repertoire from baroque to contemporary music. I think every style has its own proper charm, and I always seek to discover the beauty in each new piece that I learn.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? strings?

At the moment I perform on a guitar built by Jacek Łozak from 2010. My favourite strings are Savarez Alliance Premium medium tension. Since last year I’m proud to be a part of the Savarez artists family.

Which guitarists have had the most influence on you?

Definitely all of my teachers. Lidia Przyłęcka, Ryszard Bałauszko and Marco Tamayo – they have had a huge influence on my progress, for which I will always be grateful. I consider all of them amazing musicians, dedicated teachers and wonderful people. I was extremely lucky to have them along the way.

What recordings are you most proud of?

I actually haven’t done a lot of recordings in my life (but I’m working on it!). I’m certainly most proud of my recent videos made in Siccas Guitars. They are my most professionally done recordings so far.

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?

Unfortunately, because of the epidemic of coronavirus a lot of my events have been cancelled. If everything is back to normal soon, I will be able to go to Portugal in June to perform a concert with an orchestra as a part of the International Guitar Festival in Amarante. I am sure I will enjoy it a lot after having such a long break from traveling.

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Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

The duration of my practice varies depending on many factors. I usually practice around four hours per day, but this amount increases before concerts or competitions (or now, because of the quarantine). On the other hand I practice less when I spend time with my family or when traveling. I’m also no stranger to taking days off to relax and reset. I don’t think I structure my routine in some special way.

Usually after I have finished practicing in the evening, I make a plan for the next day so that my practice sessions are balanced and I don’t neglect anything. When I have a whole day for myself I like to break it out into two sessions: morning and afternoon, 2-3 hours each, with a break for lunch and some other activity.

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?

I think there is always room for progress, so in that sense I can say I’m working on every aspect of the guitar performance. I don’t imagine that I will ever have a feeling that there is nothing else to work on and I think it’s a good thing. The constant pursuit of artistic excellence is what brings innovation and life to art.

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?

It depends on the piece and the situation. I usually try to learn a piece by memory as soon as possible, so that I can entirely focus on the music. Sometimes the music demands deliberate memorization, and other times the memorization comes naturally after just a few days of playing it. Nevertheless, every now and then I would revise the score, because with time some details might slip away. I also make sure that it’s not only my fingers that remember the piece, but also my brain, in other words that I remember the notes and not only the movements. In order to do that, I play it extremely slowly focusing on every note, or I go through the piece in my mind without touching the guitar at all.

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up?

I like to play through a couple of slur and scale exercises before I start practicing pieces. However, I’m not a fan of spending a lot of time warming-up, as for me the ultimate goal is to be ready to perform without having to go through a series of technique exercises. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations when we do not have the possibility to warm up before a concert, and I believe the quality of our performance should not be compromised in those situations.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Not at all. Obviously, it’s important to have a good rest and a good meal, but I wouldn’t call it a ritual. Again, I feel like it’s dangerous to have specific pre-concert routines. In situations when we are not able to perform the routines, we might then lose our confidence on stage as a result.

Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

Solve the problems instead of getting discouraged! I get the impression that a lot of young players don’t really know how to practice. They think that repetition is key and when a passage still doesn’t work after having played it 100 times they start thinking things like, “this piece is too difficult”, “I’m not good enough”, or “I need months/years to play it well”. There is nothing worse than having this sort of approach. Practicing should be all about constructive problem-solving. If something doesn’t work we should be able to exactly tell why and the more precise our answer, the better. We should be extremely conscious of our movements and of our choices. This way we can make progress way faster than by mindlessly repeating.

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate?

I wouldn’t say that there are any specific pieces that one really must play during his education, although I think that it is essential for a student to be familiar with the concepts of all the historical styles. The more repertoire we already know, the more tools we have for our next interpretations. I would also say that it is important to play the standard guitar repertoire; such as Villa-Lobos’ studies, suites by Bach, sonatas by Ponce, pieces by Barrios, Tárrega, Rodrigo, Turina and so on and so on. Nowadays we tend to look for unknown pieces, we make our own transcriptions and we commission new music. I find it wonderful, however as students we need to familiarize ourselves with traditional repertoire first. This will properly facilitate our lives as performers and teachers.

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?

I think all recordings, no matter good or bad, have their value. Exactly what we listen to is not so important; the crucial part is that we are able to develop an informed opinion and discern what is of high quality and what’s not. What I find extremely useful is listening to a lot of recordings of the same piece and focusing on the differences between them. This helps me understand many possible ways of thinking about the same piece of music.

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Tangent

What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?

The last one would be Fahrenheit 451. I love Márquez, Llosa and Murakami for their out-of-this world storytelling.

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?

I really like learning new languages. Currently I’m working on my Portuguese. Apart from that I enjoy cooking, reading, dancing salsa and just recently I got terribly hooked on the series “Breaking Bad”.

Davin-Levin Duo Playing Ravel and Glass

Music for 50+ strings? Virtuosos Colin Davin and Emily Levin, known together as the Davin-Levin harp and guitar duo, are about to release a new recording exploring repertoire and arrangements spanning at least that many strings. The recording will feature music by de Falla, Ravel, Glass, Stackpole, and Mattingly and is available for pre-order. Here are two absolutely beautiful videos of what to expect.

Ravel: Les Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête, from Ma Mère l’Oye

Philip Glass: Etude no. 6

If you missed Six String Journal’s interview with Colin check it out here: Colin Davin Interview.

Review of An Tran’s Upcoming CD – Stay, My Beloved

Having just had An Tran, a young Vietnamese guitarist with exceptional talent, featured on Six String Journal, I thought it would be wonderful to segue with a short review of his upcoming recording of Vietnamese music written and arranged for classical guitar, Stay, My Beloved.

image-asset.jpgThere is perhaps no better way to experience a culture than to listen to its folk music. It evokes myth, stories, history, and landscape. An Tran’s magical playing does all of this from the first track of his recording. In The Legend of the Bamboo Child (Thanh Giong), An sets up his listener for an exceptional journey through Vietnam. This first arrangement by The-An Nguyen, both ambitious in scope and creativity, is a six movement piece dense with canonic motifs, a wide ranging palette of guitar effects, and strumming reminiscent of old stringed Vietnamese instruments, all woven together by solid and clear playing. And when the journey through the first track ends, a new one begins with the premiere recording of composer The-An Nguyen’s Lullaby, which was also written for An. And again, the landscape and fragrance of Vietnam are alive through ethereal harmonics, a poignant and expansive theme, and melancholically rich arpeggiations.

It is evident that An’s gifts go beyond just playing the guitar. Though it is easy to become seduced by the rich tone An extracts from his guitar or his obvious technical gifts, his talent as an interpreter is just as strong. His presentation of folk music through the classical guitar comes across naturally and as effortlessly as his facility on the instrument.

The recording proceeds through five more tracks, all equally captivating. During the last track Stay, My Beloved I realized that I had been transported for almost an hour to Vietnam and that, sadly,  the welcomed journey was coming to an end. As the scenes unfolded so masterfully and beautifully throughout the listening experience I was grateful to be reminded, especially now, that there are still ways to travel to distant and beautiful places.

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Stay, My Beloved is an album featuring all Vietnamese guitar music, distributed by Sony/The Orchard, available everywhere on April 18, 2020. Pre-Order available now.

 

Artist Profile and Interview: An Tran

An Tran

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It is always wonderful to stumble upon a great young artist who seems to be doing everything right. An Tran has been praised for his incredible technique and magical playing enough to have won prizes in many international guitar and music competitions throughout the world. An has recently given recitals for the Bangkok Guitar Society, Austin Classical Guitar, Toronto International Guitar Series. This season 2019-20 will include An’s solo concert at the prestigious Segovia Classical Guitar Series in Chicago, USA in May 2020.

An is also a champion of Vietnamese music and has performed pieces written for him by Vietnamese composers on the international stage. He recently premiered the work, Ru Con (Lullaby), written for An by composer/guitarist Nguyễn Thế An in Toronto in March 2019. And his debut CD of an all-Vietnamese repertoire is to be released in early 2020. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, An took some time from his busy schedule to share some of his experience and journey with Six String Journal. Enjoy!

Personal

SSJ: When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially? 

AT: I was really lucky to have my parents that helped me find my passion. When I was a kid, I was not good at school…so I think my parents saw that and let me try a lot of different things (from drawing to piano to playing tennis!). Our house was always filled with music, breakfast, lunch and dinner. I went to sleep listening to music. Until one day, my cousin started to play the guitar. I thought to myself, at 8 years old, “I need to try that out!”. It was one of the greatest decisions in my life.

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most? 

It’s hard to say because I enjoy playing all kinds of music, but I definitely love to play Vietnamese music. The more I grow as an artist, the more I feel the connection to my home country, Vietnam. Now I always include Vietnamese music in my concert program. They can be either arrangements of Vietnamese traditional folk songs, or original compositions from Vietnamese composers. I get to share a little bit of who I am with the audience, everywhere I go.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I perform on Stephen Connor guitars. I currently have 2 of his guitars and they are extremely amazing instruments. Steve made my guitars with so much care and love that it is a joy to play every single time. His uplifting spirit is also contagious and inspiring as well.

For strings, I use D’Addario Carbon, Normal Tension. They sound beautiful on my Connors, and they hold intonation really well. Since I tour with only one guitar most of the time, due to my program with Vietnamese music, I have to change to alternate tuning between pieces. They have never failed.

 Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?

I would say all of my teachers made a huge impact on me as a musician and as a human being. I have too many teachers to list them, but if they are reading this, they know who they are 🙂 I can also say that I learned so much from my guitarist friends as well. When I did a few competitions, I learned so much just by listening to my fellow competitors.

My classical guitar heroes are John Williams and David Russell. When I was a kid, I listened to their recordings on repeat almost every day. I also love Nguyen Le, a Vietnamese/French jazz guitarist. He has an amazing ability of blending traditional Vietnamese music with contemporary Jazz. I highly recommend checking him out, if you haven’t heard him yet.

What recording/s are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of my upcoming album “Stay, My Beloved”, which features all Vietnamese guitar music. This recording is like my life journey. Some pieces I learned when I was a kid, and some I learned not too long ago. It was a lot of work, but the music on this album stay very close to my heart, that’s why the whole process was so satisfying. It will be released on April 18, 2020.

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?

I’m excited about the upcoming concerts in the US as well as my European tour in August. This will be my first time playing in Europe, so I am very excited. On top of that, I will premiere 2 works that were dedicated to me by Spanish composer Juan Erena in Cádiz, Spain. I’m also working with a few Vietnamese composers to write more works for the ever-evolving guitar repertoire. Even though my debut album is not even out yet, I’m already thinking about recording the next Vietnamese guitar album.


Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

I always aim to practice for about 4 to 6 hours a day. For me, it is important to practice every day well. I normally divide my practice to 2-3 different shorter sessions. I always try to prioritize practicing first, before doing anything else during the day.

Also, there are apps that could help with your practice schedule. I use this app called “ATracker” on my iPhone. I use its timer to keep track of every piece that I’m working on. This way, I can make sure that I don’t spend too much (or too little) time on 1 piece. By the end of the week, it would give me a graph of how much I practiced each piece. That gives me an idea of what to work on for the following week. I also normally take 1 day off of guitar. I find it helpful to get back to my practice freshly the day after.

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?

I’m constantly working to improve my listening and musicality skills. For me, playing something musically well is very important and I try to improve on that. I also don’t have the perfect technique, so I do struggle with really hard passages sometimes. However, it is easier to improve on the technical side nowadays because there are so many good resources online and good teachers out there. For me, the metronome is crucial for learning new music and master the hard passages. I also use Tonebase, an online resource for guitarists, whenever I find myself struggling with something (either musically or technically). Nothing will replace a good teacher, but there’s always some good info online to support what you’re learning.

By the way, I am NOT “sponsored” by any apps/websites mentioned above, those are just apps that I personally use.

 

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up? 

Yes! Villa-Lobos’ Etude No. 1 is always a go-to for me as a warmup before a concert. I also use some of Scott Tennant’s exercises from his Pumping Nylon book. So helpful!

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I eat a banana before I play. I find it helpful to get some energy before a concert. I also do some meditation and make sure that I feel grateful for every single opportunity. For people to take their time out of their schedules to come see me perform, that is absolutely incredible! Definitely something to be grateful for!!

 


Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

One of the most important skills that I learned (and still trying to do) is to keep my focus at 100% while practicing. When I was younger, I practiced like a machine. Mindlessly ran my pieces as many times as possible. All I’m doing now is trying to fix all the problems that came from that!! It can create huge problems and bad habits to fix later. Thankfully, I’ve had amazing teachers who patiently sat with me to tell me what I’ve been doing wrong.

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?

I think the most essential skill for a young musician is to cover all periods of classical music. To be able to teach and find your own “voice” in your playing, it’s important to go through all the essential “classical” guitar repertoire. I also think etudes are super important as well. For me, personally, I loved (and still play) the Giuliani, Villa-Lobos and Brouwer Etudes.


Tangent

What is the last movie that you watched?

Parasite, that was crazy!

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food? 

Yes absolutely. I’ve been doing yoga lately and it really helps. I’ve had lower back pain in the past, so now I try to do yoga more regularly. Nothing fancy, just iPhone apps and Youtube videos. Also, my chiropractor told me that it is important to get up more often to stretch, and to not sit and practice for hours straight (which was my bad habit). I might have to give him commission for this piece of advice!!!

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?

I love to cook. I think cooking is so similar to playing music. Other hobbies are watching movies with my wife, playing FIFA or board games with my family and friends, playing with my puppy Luna. My dad is a former photojournalist, so he taught me a lot about photography. I am now addicted to photography and I enjoy taking pictures of my travels.

Support An by pre-ordering his new CD: Stay, My Beloved

 

 

 

 

Gohar Vardanyan plays Bach

Armenian guitar virtuosa, Gohar Vardanyan, just released a wonderful video playing the Prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Lute Suite Nº3, BWV995. From the rich sound she extracts from her guitar to the precision of her playing, Gohar proves that in addition to playing Spanish music with great passion and elegance, her Bach is crafted on the same level.

Hopefully, she will put up videos of the remaining movements but in the meantime, enjoy. And, if you would like to support her recording project, visit her indiegogo page: Grand Solos.

Also, check out an interview with Gohar here: Artist Profile and Interview – Gohar Vardanyan..

Thomas Viloteau plays Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Concerto Nº1

 

Here is a clip from years ago of Thomas Viloteau playing Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Concerto Nº1, Op. 99. The guitar music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco always evokes endless fantasy and the grandeur of Hollywood in the 50s and 60s. As usual, Thomas plays with crystalline clarity, direction, and energy. Check out Six String Journal’s interview with Thomas here: SSJ Interview Thomas Viloteau.

 

Koen Claeys World Premier of Leo Brouwer’s Quinteto Nº2

Belgian virtuoso, Koen Claeys, along with the French string quartet “Quatuor Hermes” recently performed the world premier of Cuban composer, Leo Brouwer’s Quinteto Nº2, In Memoriam Alejo Carpentier, para guitarra y cuarteto de cuerdas. The work, dedicated to Koen and performed in celebration of Brouwer’s 80th birthday, is a single-movement quintet that is both vibrant and vigorous with moments that are both delicate and sensuous. Brouwer manages to evoke a soundscape reminiscent of the magical realism of Cuban musicologist and novelist Alejo Carpentier. Enjoy!

 

In case you missed the wonderful artist profile on Koen, you can find it here:

Koen Claeys Artist Interview and Profile

Featured Artist and Interview – Daniel Schatz

Praised for his musicianship and virtuosity alike, Israeli guitar virtuoso Daniel Schatz has been heard on many stages across Europe, South America, and Israel. Fortunately for Six String Journal readers, Daniel took some time this weekend to share some of his thoughts on guitar and to chat about his musical journey so far. Enjoy!

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Personal

When did you start playing and why? Or, what drew you to the guitar initially?

I started to play at the age of 10 or so. My father had an old twelve-string guitar stashed away and I was always drawn to it when he wasn’t at home. One day he showed me some chords on that guitar, I remember it was very, very hard due to the double-coursed steel strings. I guess we didn’t have computer games back then…

What repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?

Bach is my bread and water, I play at least one suit every day.

What guitar or guitars do you perform on? Strings?

I play on a 2009 Karl-Heinz Römmich in concerts. As for strings, I use what works to my opinion the best for that guitar, which is for basses – Augustine blue, second and third strings – Savarez alliance, and first string – Augustine regal.

Which guitarists/musicians have had the most influence on you?

From a guitar prospective I guess I always come back to the holy trinity of guitarists: Segovia, Bream, and Williams. But I rarely listen to guitarist. As musicians go I have to say Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff, and Emil Gilels on piano. Pieter Wispelwey on cello, Gidon Kremer on violin, and Tabea Zimmermann on viola are for me always an inspiration.

If you have recordings, which recording/s are you most proud of? If not, are you planning to record a cd?

I don’t see the economic viability of CD’s. Many of my friends have recorded for some labels, they don’t get nothing for their hard work. Some of them recorded on their own equity and paid the label to distribute the CD with no revenue. I find this to be very strange and don’t see me taking a apart of it.

Are there any recordings that you consider have the finest recorded sound for guitar?

I love the sound of Carles Trepat’s recordings on an old Torres with gut-strings.

What are some up and coming projects (recordings, concerts) you are excited about?

I have three projects coming up. The first is an homage to the Segovian repertoire with a modern take on the arrangements, the second is a project with string players of the Israeli Philharmonie, and the third is a project with a wonderful soprano and cellist. in between I have some wonderful projects with a piano player and the Aranjuez with orchestra.

Technique and Performance

How much do you practice? And, do you structure your practice in any particular way?

I have two children and many students, so I practice when they are away, which is mostly at the morning time. I try to play every Bach day. It keeps my memory and technique fit. After that I practice the program for the oncoming concert and read new pieces.

Are there aspects of guitar that you struggle with or that you find you are still working on?

Technically guitar is very hard, I think the hardest thing is to see through the technique and find a musical concept. I see more and more young players falling into those technical perfection traps and I try myself to avoid them as best as I can.

Do you deliberately memorize music or have a technique that helps assimilate music into memory?

1.Practice slowly 2. Practice slowly 3. Practice slowly.

Have you published any editions or do you plan to publish your own editions in the future?

I don’t have plans to do this soon since I have much on my plate, but one day I hope to get to it.

Do you have a favorite drill you use to warm up?

BWV997 fugue slowly.

Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

I try not to have a big lunch on that day and I play trough very slow and pianissimo to get the feel of the guitar and relax my hands

Do you do anything to your nails or shape them in a particular way?

It is very different from one person to the other. I try to have them as short as possible for me (which will be very long for someone else). Any length more than 2mm above the skin and I get a “naily” sound.

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Advice to Younger Players

What single most important piece of advice about practicing would you offer to younger players?

Play a piece that you like. If you really like the piece you would gladly spend more time to make it sound good.

What repertoire do you consider essential for young/conservatory students to assimilate? Why?

I think that every guitarist should go through the pieces that got the guitar to the place it is now. The Segovia/Williams program is our “school”. I find it somewhat strange that students play Britten or Ohana but not Asturias or Recuerdos.

Recordings that every young guitarist should be familiar with and why?

Villa Lobos with Alvaro Pierri. Pierri is coming to this music armed with amazing imagination rather than with dexterity (of which he is not lacking in any way).

Tangent

What is the last book that you read? Favorite author/s?

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation is the last one I read. I think Bulgakov is maybe my favorite.

Do you try to stay healthy? Exercise? Follow a particular diet? Have a favorite pre-concert food?

I try not to eat excessively, I try to exercise, but I find the hardest part is to put the sneakers on. I love local fresh Mediterranean food but before concerts salads are always a good choice.

Do you meditate in any way?

No, but I love to think about things in silence.

What is your favorite way to spend time when not practicing?

Playing with my kids is a lot of fun.

Any things else you’d like to add?

I hope guitarist will start acknowledging that they are a part of a big musical community and work their way up the ladder in the music world in the same way Segovia did many decades ago, instead of working inwards in the guitar world.

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Leo García plays Piazzolla’s Muerte del Ángel

Throughout the years I’ve enjoyed hearing many versions of Astor Piazzolla’s Muerte del Ángel. When I finally decided to add it to my repertoire the version that was most memorable was the one I remembered hearing on Marcelo Kayath’s Latin American Favorites record released in 1987. I still hold that record in high regard for Marcelo’s beautiful sound and elegant playing.

Thanks for listening!