BY JULIA CROWE | FROM THE SPRING 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
At the close of her master class at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, guitarist and professor Antigoni Goni cast a glance toward the clock as a wind instructor hovered anxiously outside the door, waiting to use the classroom. Goni had been very generous with the students that afternoon. She advised graduate student Tengyue Zhang on how to approach one of the particulars in Alexandre Tansman’s Variations on a Theme by Scriabin: “Think of your timing in the sense of how an actor delivers a line or how a dancer moves to rhythm . . . . All that is performed well is done with proper timing. Mazurkas carry their accent on the third beat, and they are played to convey humor. The transitions are not sad in tone, but cheeky.”
And with that last pronouncement, guitar cases snapped shut and everyone gathered their coats. Zhang, who was the 2017 winner of the prestigious Guitar Foundation of America competition, is the second Juilliard student to have placed first in that event since Goni accomplished that feat in 1995. Goni swept through the halls of Juilliard, hugging and greeting various faculty and administrative staff members, who expressed happy surprise to see her again after nearly 15 years. “So many memories here, yes!” she says.
Goni, who teaches at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, arrived in the U.S. this past October for a weeklong masterclass and concert tour that also took her to Hartford, Connecticut; Atlanta, Georgia; Puebla and Atlixcayotl, Mexico; and Placitas, New Mexico. The tour marked the release of her most recent album, Hymn to the Muse (Timespan), an hour-long musical homage to Greek culture written by a half dozen established contemporary composers.
“The triptych of my life is this: I started playing guitar in Greece when I was 12 years old,” she begins. Goni furthered her studies at the National Conservatory of Athens with Evangelos Assimakopoulos, of the famed Evangelos & Liza classical guitar duo. “Six years later, I left for England, where I attended the Royal Academy of Music,” where she studied with Julian Bream and John Mills. “I then moved to New York City where I earned my master’s degree at Juilliard School of Music in 1994 [studying with Sharon Isbin]. I established the Pre-College Division of the guitar department of Juilliard the following year, and I spent the next ten years performing internationally and teaching both at Juilliard and at Columbia University.
“With the new millennium, my plans and perspectives started changing,” she continues. “After I married, I began commuting between New York and Belgium, where I started teaching at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. In 2005 I finally moved to Brussels, where I had my first daughter.”
UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN
Goni learned very quickly to speak French and Dutch, in addition to her already established Greek, Italian, and English. While teaching, she developed an annual summer guitar retreat, the Volterra Project, with her Italian-born husband, Michele, who serves as the program’s managing director.
“There are many reasons why we chose Volterra as the location to host the workshop that became the Volterra Project,” Goni says. “I was already familiar with Tuscany because I studied there with Oscar Ghiglia at the Accademia Chigiana, in 1992. Michele is from that region and we have traveled to experience the art, the history, and the perfume of the land at a non-touristic level. When we started looking for a workshop location, the countryside of Volterra, with its beauty, gentle serenity, and Renaissance-like harmony, jumped out to me immediately.”
The accommodations for the workshop are on the Inghirami Farms in an area that raises cattle and also produces extra virgin olive oil. The property provides eight rustic but recently restored apartments set in the countryside about 9 km from Volterra, and there is even a swimming pool.
“With the Volterra Project, we’ve created a 360-degree approach to the art of guitar playing to address the multiplicity of issues that guitarists face during the course of their careers,” Goni says. “By 360 degrees I mean that we focus not only on guitar master classes, but also on taking care of the body through ergonomics and music physiology training—in addition to developing the business skills that are essential to a performing artist’s career.”
This year marks the twelfth year of the ever-evolving Volterra Project. “This past year, we added an acting coach, which may seem like a bizarre idea, initially, but skillful interpretation of a musical piece implies an inherent acting component,” she explains. “A music piece is comparable to an actor’s role, and we, as musicians, have to be able to express it convincingly. Like an actor, we must be able to fully convey the personality, dimensionality, and universe of our music.
“Our main goal for this workshop is to help young guitarists prepare for the multiple aspects of a performing career and to become aware of their artistic growth. We emphasize the importance of finding a balance between personal life and career, for artistic growth can take place only through the development of the artist as a whole, not through one’s playing skills alone.”
Goni launched her own career with several competition wins, including Best Interpretation of Latin American Music at the 1988 International Guitar Competition in Havana, the 1990 Julian Bream Prize, and the 1995 GFA. However, she says she is not a big fan of some of the side-effects that come with any long-term pursuit of trophy-hunting.
“We believe in the importance of a well-rounded, noncompetitive approach to performing,” she notes. “Competition may be a driving force, but I’ve never felt it was an ideal means for achieving real improvement. By striving to win competitions, you may become an unbeatable competition winner, but this does not mean you will necessarily become a better guitarist.
“Students who apply to the Volterra Project are aware they will be attending a very different kind of workshop, yet they rarely have a full idea of what is in store for them. Of course, they’ve read our material and the description of our activities—and sometimes they’ve met a few of our alumni. But the program is unique in that it offers full, personal change. This isn’t something we anticipated or visualized at the outset, but our students have frequently defined and evaluated their experience as ‘life-changing.’”
In addition to the classes, the program immerses students and faculty in ten days of sharing art, food, culture, and fun. “This triggers a fantastic impulse to learning and personal improvement that goes well beyond the mere duration of the workshop,” she says. To elaborate, she mentions how her sound engineer, David Jaggs, showed students how to use a microphone and record. “He taught them basic sound editing so everything we posted on Facebook that year was a result of what they learned. It is an amazing experience to see young people turned on—a much different experience than seeing them worry about what their next competition is and how they must prove themselves. You don’t have to prove anything! Find yourself first!”
EMBRACING ERROR, LIMITATIONS, AND FLAWS
“If a student focuses too much on competing and conflicts, they tend to concentrate on their mistakes and, as a result, live in constant fear of failing. One of the roles of a teacher is to convey the idea that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process,” Goni says. “Mistakes are a part of life. The ancient Greek word mistake comes from the verb ‘to forget.’ A mistake is not a right or wrong issue, per se. A mistake is simply a moment that will be forgotten.
“It takes strength to be yourself, to acknowledge your imagination and to really dare. I have personally learned more from the times I completely destroyed a piece onstage or completely failed in a competition. I tell students to not be afraid of failing big—to fall flat on their faces. Failure provides a defining moment where you must find the strength to get up, assess your losses, and transform the experience into a positive, driving, and constructive force.”
In the same vein, Goni says she cherishes the limitations of the classical guitar as an instrument: “I chose to study classical guitar because, ever since I was very little, I’ve loved its sound. With time, I became aware of the commonly perceived limitations of the instrument, namely its small voice and inability to sustain sound. To paraphrase Julian Bream, that moment when every note produced on a guitar begins to die is also the moment when it is born. I came to identify these ‘limitations’ as intrinsic and singular to the guitar’s character, and they made me fall completely in love with the instrument. The sound is intimate and human.
“It is hard to find young players who instinctively pay attention to sound and who strive, as a result, to create a fully communicative voice in their playing,” she continues. “I am not talking about creating a beautifully consistent, fat, and round tone as much as a sound that communicates. It can be harsh, beautiful and sweet, aggressive, thin—whatever quality you’d like it to be—in order to bring out the message. The guitar’s voice must modulate.
“The old saying that the guitar is like a small orchestra is wonderfully true. The guitar is capable of producing many colors and voices, but these colors do not originate from the instrument. They originate inside the mind of the artist, who must cultivate the ability to tap into this universe and create these colors through the guitar. There are many tools available to help express these emotive parts. What I observe in many players is a lot of uniformity but not a lot of personality. This is the downside to competitions,” she stresses. “Competitions demand that your career become tailored to the competitive stage and then you’ve spent all those creative years doing that instead of searching for and developing your own voice.”
GONI FINDS HER ‘MUSE’
It’s no exaggeration to say that Goni’s Greece-centric Hymn to the Muse album took her entire career to produce, and choosing the pieces became a deeply personal proposition. Interestingly, she tapped a number of composers from outside her homeland, writers whom she felt captured some important essence of some aspect of Greek life, culture, or history.
For instance, Dušan Bogdanovic created an elegantly sonorous and lyrical time capsule with his Hymn to the Muse. “The piece is based on the oldest surviving music we have, which is inscribed on the Athenian Treasury in Delphi on tombstones and along the coast of Aydin, Turkey,” Goni says. “These original hymns date back two thousand years.” Atanas Ourkouzounov’s Four Greek Miniatures are moodily evocative, inspired by traditional Macedonian dances from the Aegean Sea. His particularly beautiful ‘Leaping’ movement incorporates a sultry minor-key melody woven sinuously between the beats of delicate harmonics and ghostly notes tapped out as slurs between string-slapping and soundboard percussion.
Sérgio Assad’s Three Greek Letters opens with bent notes that swiftly enter a modern, swirling vortex of a melody, followed by a graceful movement that concludes with an angular, busily syncopated call-and-response theme. “Sérgio wrote the piece based on the Greek letters used in mathematics: psi, pi, and sigma. The letter psi is a phonetic conflation of the letters pi and sigma,” Goni explains.
New York composer Stanley Silverman’s Eridos tells the myth of the Golden Apple, a beauty competition established by the disgruntled Eris, the Goddess of Discord, when she is left out of a party by mean-girl goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. The piece opens with a spry, traditional Greek dance theme turned and made modern, and ends with a movement that makes full use of nearly every sound capable on the guitar—everything but the squeal, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
Two Greek composers are represented. Manos Hadjidakis’ Gioconda’s Smile, arranged by Tulio Peramo, thematically captures a glimpse of someone lost within a New York City street parade, which left the composer standing alone in front of Rizzoli’s Bookstore in Midtown, faced with a picture book featuring the Mona Lisa smiling back at him enigmatically from behind the plate glass window. The first movement conveys the glimpse; the second delivers chase and intrigue; and the third movement expresses poignancy imbued with optimistic reverie and concludes with a clever, musical upturn of a smile. Mikis Theodorakis’ Two Epitafios are appropriately pensive, with a somber melody in one movement veering into knocking soundboard percussion and chunky, dirge-like bass chords in the next. “I included works by Hadjidakis, who wrote the theme for Never on Sunday, and Theodorakis, who wrote the theme for Zorba the Greek, because one of the reasons I played the guitar when I was younger is because I wanted to be able to play their music,” Goni says.
Goni recorded half of the album’s tracks in in April 2004 at Kreusch Music Studios, in Ottobrunn/Munich, using a 1999 Olivier Fanton d’Anton guitar, and the other half in 2015 at the St. Mary Our Lady church in Sidlesham in West Sussex, England, using a 1989 “La Boda” by Jose Romanillos.
“I play my Romanillos guitar mainly for recording and for selected European travels, and on the road these days I play my Andrea Tacchi,” Goni says. “I stopped playing the Fanton d’Anton a while back. Recently the Koninklijk Conservatory of Brussels purchased this Tacchi guitar as one of its high-end concert guitars for students to work on and borrow.”
Why did the recording encompass sessions 11 years apart? “In 2004, I traveled to Germany to record the Assad and the Silverman pieces for what, at the time, I thought was going to become the core of my next CD,” she explains. “After the editing, however, I felt like something was still missing from the overall structure, so I postponed it.
“Years passed and I found myself carried away by other projects. One day, Dušan Bogdanovic sent me the score of his Hymn to the Muse, and a few months later I met Atanas Ourkouzounov, who offered to write for me the Greek Miniatures. In that period, I was playing two short pieces by Mikis Theodorakis, and it all came beautifully together in my concert programs. Everything clicked. I had a beautiful album that was both very personal and filled with works that were the fruit of long collaboration and friendship with the composers. Hymn to the Muse is a very special album of one player bringing together two guitars, two recording places, and two moments in a lifetime—my own.”
Goni launched a “sound-hunting” expedition in the UK with her producer to find the right recording venue. “Sound, silence, and the moments suspended in between are very important to me. I looked for a recording location where the natural sound of my Romanillos would bloom, where the slightest color and articulation change could be heard effortlessly within the recording.
“I knew such an environment would inspire me to bring out nuances I might not have otherwise uncovered, and I found all this in the church we finally chose. After a day of testing, we reached the ideal configuration of microphones. Everything proceeded so smoothly and effortlessly that it seemed like magic, and this is one more reason why this CD is so special to me.”