BY JULIA CROWE | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
The Art of the Guitar series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y is celebrating its 20th year as a showcase for classical guitar artistry that goes beyond concerts to include the premieres of commissioned new works and even onstage interviews with guitarists. Yale guitar professor Benjamin Verdery has served as Artistic Director of Art of the Guitar since 2007, after its initial launch in 1998 by Juilliard Guitar Department chairperson Sharon Isbin.
Under Verdery’s tenure there have been 16 premieres of new works for the guitar by composers such as Egberto Gismonti, Roberto Sierra, Carlos Rafael Rivera, Tan Dun, Sérgio Assad, Stephen Goss, Frederic Hand, Chen Yi, Johannes Möller, Gyan Riley, and Verdery himself.
This year’s season included the New York premiere of a new untitled work for guitar and string quartet by rock band The National’s Bryce Dessner, co-commissioned by the 92nd Street Y and performed by Verdery and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. And solo guitarist Jorge Caballero performed the world premiere of a piece called Midsummer Love.
“Over 20 years, Art of the Guitar has delighted the community of concert-goers and expanded the scope of the instrument for future generations of classical guitarists,” says Hanna Arie-Gaifman, Director of the 92nd Street Y Tisch Center for the Arts. “Audiences are consistently thrilled and inspired by the breadth of talent that the extraordinary musicians bring to our stages, not only as performers but as purveyors of virtuosic repertoire from every major style of music. In the spirit of curiosity and personal enrichment which 92Y embodies, our audiences also enjoy a closer connection to the music with free pre-concert talks before every guitar concert, given by Benjamin Verdery.”
Verdery, who is entering his tenth year of curating the series next season, says, “It has been an honor for me to work at one of New York City’s greatest cultural centers, and I have really loved all the wonderful people I have been fortunate to work with. Hanna [Arie-Gaifman], of course, has been a total joy to work with and has taught me much.”
His enjoyable pre-concert lectures can be found on YouTube as “Guitar Talks with Benjamin Verdery.” Past artists include Eliot Fisk and Paco Peña, David Russell, Christopher Parkening, Raphaella Smits (below), and the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.
“Initially, we held the first couple of lectures in our gallery space, which is adjacent to our stunning concert hall,” Verdery says. “As the word spread, we had to move the lectures into the main hall. After one or two seasons, I thought, ‘What if I did a pre-concert interview with each artist?’ I figured they could only say no. The first interview of this kind was with Paul Odette. He was so incredibly generous in his answers and, of course, brilliant. So we continued asking artists to interview and, with very few exceptions, they’ve said yes.
“One event we continue to present is the Guitar Marathon,” he adds. “It consists of two lengthy concerts—one in the afternoon and one in the evening.” The first Guitar Marathons were curated by New York–based music producer David Spelman. “David brought together a wonderful group of artists from all different genres,” Verdery says. “One that I will especially not forget is the very first Guitar Marathon in 2007 when I met Andy Summers [best known as guitarist for the rock band The Police], who became a dear friend and collaborator.”
The 92nd Street Y Guitar Marathons have continued with specific themes and curators over the years. “For example, Sérgio Assad curated an extraordinary Marathon celebrating Brazilian guitar music,” Verdery notes. “That is the moment when New York City guitar-lovers got to hear the now-legendary Yamandu Costa. This past year I curated a Marathon dedicated to the art of guitar arrangements and transcriptions that have shaped our instrument from the past to the present. The incredible guitarists and great friends who participated included the Assads, the Brasil Duo, the Vida Quartet, Ana Vidovic, Jorge Caballero, Paul Galbraith, Max Zuckerman, and myself.”
Verdery has also created several tribute concerts in the series. “With Hanna’s help and suggestions, we’ve brought together performers who share a special connection to the artist we are honoring,” he says. “For example, in the case of the Julian Bream tribute, we opened the concert with Fred Hand, who studied with the maestro. In our Brouwer tribute, we were able to have Odair Assad perform the sonata written for him, and the Eden Stell Guitar Duo, whom we featured in this program, performed the most brilliant interpretation of Per Sone a Due I have ever heard.
“Hanna has also shown me the value in nurturing a young performer. If a particular performer resonates with our audience and is someone we feel is developing as an artist, we will tend to bring them back. There are certain artists over the years who are real Y staples and, unsurprisingly, are beloved around the world. We do have a 92Y guitar family and the list is always growing. Many of our guests also perform at local high schools during their visit. The artists get to share their art and lives directly with students, in a less formal manner than the concert hall,” Verdery says.
Another project that is dear to Verdery is the annual 92nd Street Y Guitar Day. “The 92nd Street Y also has a thriving music school, as part of the Gilda and Henry Block School of the Arts. At the beginning of my tenure, we instituted Guitar Day as an event that is free and open to the public, offering free mini recitals, lectures and classes, and a variety of performers. Last year, with director Yana Stotland, we celebrated women guitarists by featuring Kaki King, Jiji Kim, Sheryl Bailey, and Ann Klein. What is so special about Guitar Day is that it enables artists, students, and guitar enthusiasts to share their ideas and love for the guitar. All you have to do is show up!”