Grammy-Winner Jason Vieaux is Always Looking for New Challenges
by Blair Jackson
Two days after Jason Vieaux’s stunning victory at the 2015 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, where his Play album won in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category, the tired but glowing guitarist sounds as if he is still slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of it all—both the event and the validation his trophy represents. It’s the culmination of many years of hard work and endless practicing and performing, of course, and it has instantly elevated Vieaux into the rarified company of the few classical guitarists to have earned Grammys over the past half-century-plus, joining Andrés Segovia (1958), Laurindo Almeida (five, from 1960-64), Julian Bream (four, from 1963-72), John Williams (1972), Sharon Isbin (2001, 2010), the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (2004), and David Russell (2004).
The 41-year-old Vieaux’s Play (on the Azica label) has proven to be one of the most popular classical-guitar records of recent years, one that appeals to both hard-core fans of the instrument and newcomers. Over the course of 17 tracks, it serves up an eclectic mélange of solo-guitar tracks, including traditional pieces by Tárrega, Segovia, and Barrios, as well as those by Jobim, Andrew York, Leo Brouwer, Paul Bellinati, and even Duke Ellington. The range of genres and eras makes it difficult to classify, yet there is a distinct, unified vision evident in the crisp playing and Vieaux’s unwavering commitment to both melody and rhythm throughout the disc.
No doubt he could have followed Play with an equally crowd-pleasing selection of solo pieces, but instead Vieaux has taken a scenic side road in a different direction: Together (also on Azica) is a wondrous collaboration with the sensational harpist Yolanda Kondonassis who, like Vieaux, teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music when she isn’t touring as one of the top artists in her field. “Jason and I have known each other a long time and get along really well,” Kondonassis says in a separate interview right after I talked with Vieaux. “We communicate well, both personally and musically, and right from the start, I could tell we were sympathetic [together]. There are some similarities between the harp and guitar, but also many differences, obviously. What we’ve been able to do is to both blend and contrast them.”
There was precious little existing repertoire for guitar and harp for the pair to draw from. Their first duo collaboration was a live performance of Alan Hovhaness’ 1983 composition Sonata for Harp and Guitar: Spirit of the Trees, long before they entered a recording studio with Play producer Alan Bise to make a full album.
After adding multilayered pieces by Maximo Diego Pujol (Suite Majica, 2008; it kicks off the CD and lives up to its name) and the late Xavier Montsalvatge (Fantasia, 1983), Vieaux and Kondonassis commissioned two new works, one by fellow CIM teacher Keith Fitch (“Knock on Wood”), the other by New York composer (and flutist) Gary Schocker, an occasional playing partner of Vieaux’s.
Stylistically, Together is all over the map, ranging from American folk and Spanish-influenced passages to bits of blues—are you ready for “walking bass” harp?—gorgeous melodic flights, and a fair amount of abstraction and dissonance. The musical blend is glorious, the communication between the players clearly telepathic, and the result is an album that is both pleasing and challenging.
Neither artist has been afraid to take chances through the years in their search for new avenues to explore their respective instruments. True, Vieaux has recorded entire albums of music by Bach, Albéniz, Sor, and Ponce, but he also devoted one to jazz guitarist/composer Pat Metheny, cut a disc of music by Astor Piazzolla with bandoneon master Julien Labro, a Brazilian-themed CD with cellist Young-Hoon Song, and two with flautist Schocker. He and Kondonassis both have broad tastes in music outside the worlds of classical guitar and harp, so it is not a surprise that they would feel comfortable playing with so many different styles and textures on their first album together.
What follows are some highlights from my interview with Vieaux about his collaboration with Kondonassis (and a few other matters).
What do you think the victory of your album at the Grammy Awards says?
Well, I wanted to make a quote-unquote “hits” album, but in my style. I was going to throw a few curveballs in there with some of my arrangements, but make it a fun thing to listen to, where you didn’t know what was coming next, but it all hangs together as a whole. Not to compare myself to the great David Russell—and [in my post-victory comments] I acknowledged him and Julian Bream as childhood heroes and previous winners of that award—but for me, when David won that award in 2004, I and many of my colleagues were so happy. It was awesome. We wanted to have a party to celebrate. It felt like people were really listening to this stuff and thinking about it and rewarding quality.
We knew the CD [Play] had a sort of underground buzz behind it, because radio stations were playing it. Radio program directors and DJs were reporting back to my PR person, Christina Jensen, saying, “We love this record—we wish we could play the whole thing on the air.” So I thought we had an outside shot. We’re very proud of the CD. But to win is definitely amazing.
Your album with Yolanda is obviously very different from Play, not just because it’s two instruments, but because there are much more modern and challenging sonorities on there.
Oh, yeah, that’s a hard-core modern album that’s all original, with no arranging [of classic pieces] on it.
I must be honest and say I don’t think I had ever heard harp and classical guitar combined before, but within about the first 30 seconds or so, I was thinking, “Why hasn’t this happened more often?” Because it seems like such a fantastic and natural combination of instruments, yet there isn’t much music that’s been composed for the two instruments together.
That’s right, there isn’t. There are also a couple of other pieces we haven’t recorded yet, including one by my friend Eric Sessler, whose sonata I premiered 17 or 18 years ago, and for whom I’m premiering another work in Philadelphia. He wrote a harp-guitar sonata we’re going to learn next. We’re hoping to use the duo to get other composers to write works for us. Everybody who hears us has the reaction that you did: “This is such a natural combination.” So we’re putting whatever muscle we small, classical musicians have behind it because we really believe in it, too. At the same time, we know it’s not a combination that’s easily written for. For the same reason composers are reluctant to write for the guitar, the harp is the other instrument they’re totally terrified of. [Laughs]
Why is that?
It’s almost like you have to play it to write for it. Like the guitar, it’s a highly mechanical layout—the layout of the guitar notes on the neck is actually on a grid, not on a line, and the harp is very complex as well, with the pedals and all that. So if you’re a composer, you can’t just write something straight from your ear to the page for the harp, because then the harpist has to come in and do a lot of heavy editing with the composer. It’s the same as our story, right? In most cases, it’s better if the guitarist actually works with the composer, if the composer doesn’t already play the instrument. When [Julian] Bream worked with Benjamin Britten, Bream would look at what Britten had written and say, “Well, this is possible, this is not.”
In the end, we’ve got to play these works for an audience so they understand it, so we have to be comfortable with what’s written, so sometimes there are judicious little fingering choices we have to make, to make something more playable. You have to be smart about it and be a good musician about it.
When you commission a work—like on this album you premiere pieces by Gary Schocker and Keith Fitch—what does that involve on your end? Do you collaborate on it to some extent, providing some guidance, some idea of what you’re looking for from a piece?
Every situation is different. If, down the road, I ask some very famous, living composer to do it, that’s going to be a little bit of a different situation than asking Keith Fitch, because Keith is the head of the composition department at CIM, an excellent composer, very well-respected, but we see him in the hall every day. [Laughs] I’ve had beers with him on other occasions, like at other concerts playing new music. So it was like, “Hey, Keith, want to write a piece?” It was just about that simple. And then he went off and wrote it. I did some things to it—I transposed a couple of voices to different octaves because Keith doesn’t play the guitar, and he was OK with all those changes. Yolanda modified the part again, with Keith’s approval. They worked together very hard on the harp part.
Gary Schocker was a really interesting story. Gary and I have been friends for 20 years; we’ve had a flute-guitar duo for 17 years. Gary doesn’t perform quite as much as I do; he’s concentrated on composing, and has written something like 150 pieces for the flute, his main instrument. He’s also a tremendous pianist. He’s really one of the most talented musicians I’ve met.
I thought, “We should get him to write a piece for the harp,” because a few years ago he became obsessed with the harp—he’s been playing the harp and practicing for two and three hours a day for a long time. So I asked him if he’d write something for harp and guitar and he said, “I’ve practically already written it!” He had already thought about the combination; in fact, he’d imagined writing something for me to sight-read through with him [playing harp]. But when I said, “Well, I have a duo with Yolanda Kondonassis,” he said, “Oh, my God, that’s fantastic!” So that was easy, too, and he wrote a really gorgeous piece.
It is beautiful, particularly the section titled “Together,” which sounds like the “hit,” as it were—a track that classical radio could isolate and play.
Right, the “leadoff single”! [Laughs]
It’s so lyrical and appealing, but there’s also lots going on throughout the Schocker piece.
That’s right. The last two [compositions] he wrote for our flute and guitar collaboration were more dissonant. But with the harp, I think he hears the music a little differently, maybe almost in a pop melody kind of sense. So you hear a melodic thing, but then underneath there are other things happening, not unlike with Pat Metheny’s music, where you think, “Oh, there’s some real cool rhythmic meter form and structure underneath the pretty surface that is the work of a masterful composer.”
‘If you’re a good musician, you have to use those elements of composition and arrangement to create new things.’
I definitely get the sense that you really enjoy rhythm. You like to either imply a rhythm, play a rhythm, tap out of rhythm. There’s a tremendous amount of movement in your music.
It’s the number one thing for me; it’s really the primary element. It also a big part of my teaching with students. A lot of times, classical-music students grow up feeling that melody should be emphasized, ahead of studying form and structure and rhythm. As a result, I’ve always felt I had to help my students understand how important rhythm is to an audience’s understanding of the music. The casual listener doesn’t always necessarily know that the reason they feel a piece of music or understand it often has as much to do with the rhythm as it does with the melody. If you have a rhythm-less melody, you have nothing.
If you go back to your Play album and listen to the pieces by Tárrega and Segovia, there’s a tremendous momentum that goes through them, this relentless forward movement.
Propulsion, right. Obviously that’s something I like and appreciate. And they’re fun to play.
When you have a piece like Fitch’s “Knock on Wood,” which actually has you knocking on wood—your guitar—how is that indicated in the score?
With a key, like with the Dan Visconti solo piece I’ve been playing the last three years [“Devil’s Strum”]. The composer puts a facing page before the first page that has a key, like you’ll have an x and a circle, or some kind of notation. Keith, as you can tell by the piece, is very modern—it’s more the contemporary school of music, with some dissonance, and involving sounds and textures, so he came up with notations to indicate where he wanted some tapping or whatever.
It’s a courageous way to end an album, I must say.
[Laughs] Yeah, we didn’t end it sweetly. You know what? We felt that people had already gotten a very nice record to listen to, so it was sort of the experimental track at the end.
When you play with Yolanda, are there things you hear in the harp that you wish you could do with the guitar?
First and foremost, the obvious answer is volume. And resonance. When you’re sitting next to a harp and playing, it’s this incredibly loud and resonant instrument. They actually have similar resonances, but it’s like the guitar is smaller and more intimate. But—and I’ve said this for years—what the guitar can do that no other instrument can do is be a polyphonic instrument that sings. You can make it sing with vibrato. Also, the color palette on the guitar—and the harp—exceed those of most western classical music instruments. So those things combined are why people are endlessly interested in the guitar, and why the guitar might be entering a renaissance of sorts as a performance instrument in classical music.
It helps, too, that you and some of the other most popular players are dedicated to expanding the repertoire, not just with commissioned pieces, but with successful interpretations of songs from the popular and jazz worlds. I think it’s become much more acceptable for a guitarist to tackle a Duke Ellington piece, as you do with “In a Sentimental Mood,” than it would have been 20 years ago.
Absolutely. I remember when I did the Metheny CD [Images of Metheny, 2005] there was a lot of head-scratching about that: “He’s going to do a whole album of Pat Metheny? Well, OK . . . ” But that record has had a very long tail it in terms of sales, so it was accepted. If you’re a good musician, you have to use those elements of composition and arrangement to create new things. For 500 years, composers have been readapting and recasting other people’s music or folk tunes, and creating new compositions with them. Just like the Rodrigo Fantasia para un gentilhombre concerto—those are not original ideas—they’re based on Gaspar Sanz pieces [written in the 17th century] and expanded on.
Today, the lines are becoming a little more blurred in terms of genre and style, and that’s exciting to me. I’m always going to be playing Bach suites in my concerts, but I’m not one of those guys who says, “I’m going to play the Bach suites in my style, and I’m going put this other stuff in it.” That’s not what I do. When I’m playing Bach onstage, I’m trying to play as if I’m playing for him. [Laughs] I’m not going to mess around with it. I want to get to the truth of it as much as possible. Same with Albéniz—I’m not going to try to make the guitar sound like a harpsichord or a cello or anything like that.
When I arrange a Duke Ellington tune, I want to get as close to Ellington’s style as possible. You do have more freedom to express yourself with jazz and pop, because you have to recast it. But what Metheny says he likes about [Images of Metheny] is it retains the spirit and the vibe of the original stuff, but in a new direction.
As somebody who came up through the competition system, who still teaches master classes and more, do you have any observations about how students are changing? Are their tastes more eclectic because the music that’s out there is more diverse and ecelctic? Are they more eclectic because they listen to their iPods all the time, like everybody else?
Both of those are true, but the main thing I’ve noticed is they’re more well trained—especially all these students coming out of China and the conservatory system in Europe, which train some people starting at four and five years old—like the Paris Conservatory. That’s why you see these young players winning a lot of these competitions. The training is just much more solid. They’re studying with previous international competition winners in a lot of cases, people who can really play the heck out of the guitar. So that part of the training is probably the best it’s ever been.
And I do think they have more eclectic tastes. When I was in college, I’m pretty sure I was one of maybe two people in my class at the Cleveland Institute of Music that brought his Public Enemy and Tribe Called Quest tapes with him from Buffalo. It was pretty exotic to a lot of my classmates. Now, it seems like all the students at CIM are listening to everything. The eclecticism in their listening has definitely expanded, but still, it’s only translating into the music of just a few players. And that’s OK—I don’t think people should force it. If you don’t feel comfortable in the jazz idiom, if you don’t feel comfortable in a hip-hop idiom, don’t try to throw some jazz or hip-hop in your playing, because it’s not going to sound cool; it’s going to sound really stiff and forced.
Like I said, there are a few who can pull it off, so when they play something that rocks or swings, it actually has a pretty good feel to it. But it’s really better for most students to take the more conventional route with the guitar.
Stick to the program.
Exactly. There will be opportunities to experiment later.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.