Watching Spanish-born Anabel Montesinos in concert is a perfect demonstration of highly burnished technique employed completely in the service of the music. During her June recital at Boston GuitarFest 2016 (the 11th annual festival under Eliot Fisk’s artistic direction), Montesinos opened impressively with Mauro Giuliani’s Grand Overture Op. 61. She plumbed the dramatic depths of the eight-plus-minute work and ripped through the various arpeggio sections with vigor. She later provided an elegant rendition of Enrique Granados’ Valses Poéticos that was striking for her unhurried, lyrical phrasing, timbral colorations, and crisp scale work. Montesinos quickly won the crowd over. Her program also offered authoritative takes on music by her countrymen Francisco Tárrega, Fernando Sor, and Isaac Albéniz. The festival’s theme being Viva España!, Montesinos added even more authenticity to her concert by wearing a beautiful black traje de flamenca flared at the knees and trimmed with bright red ruffles.
Montesinos grew up in Hospitalet del Infant, a coastal village in the Tarragona region of Catalonia, Spain. When she was only five, her mother noted her interest in music. “I loved classical music very much—violin and orchestral music—so my mother took me to a local music school,” Montesinos says. “I wanted to start playing violin, but my mother’s family came from Sevilla, where everyone loves flamenco and people in every family play the guitar. My mother asked me, ‘Why not begin with guitar?’ All of my uncles played. So I started playing the guitar.”
Montesinos was blessed with insightful teachers who helped her build a solid technical foundation. “They taught me very well,” she recalls. “By the time I was six or seven, I was playing in public for school concerts. One summer, Vania del Monaco came to teach at the school and wanted me to be her private student. She saw that I could do more than the others at my level.” Montesinos ended up studying with del Monaco for seven years.
At 12, Montesinos presented her first solo recital and started gaining attention as a guitar wunderkind. Renowned Spanish composer Antón García Abril, hearing her play when she was 15, called her “a promising star of the classical guitar.” His assessment was borne out when, at 17, she became the youngest person to win the national Francisco Tárrega competition in Castelón, Spain. Other competitions followed, with Montesinos taking first prize in nine European contests in Poland, Italy, Austria, France, and Spain. A contract to record her debut album for the Naxos Laureate Series followed on the heels of her 2002 win at the prestigious International Francisco Tárrega Competition in Benicàssim, Spain.
During the Boston concert, Montesinos showed her flair for Spanish music, but she maintains a stylistically diverse repertoire. “I play everything,” she told me. “I like Romantic and Spanish music very much. I’ve investigated Spanish music from different eras, and my first CD has a lot of Romantic music. But I also play Bach and contemporary music—all the styles.”
In addition to her solo recitals, Montesinos has played concertos with orchestras as a solo artist and as a duo with her husband, Marco Tamayo, another outstanding virtuoso. The two met at the Tárrega Competition in Benicàssim in 2001. Fascinated by his teaching, she became his student at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Austria, in 2003. They later married and now make their home in Austria and work together frequently. “It’s great when we get an offer to play as a duo because we can travel together,” Montesinos says. “That’s much more fun than traveling alone. In our duo concerts, sometimes we will each play some solos. It’s more interesting for the people if we start as a duo, then I play some solos, Marco plays solos, and then we finish as a duo.”
As an ensemble, they cover a lot of geographic and stylistic territory. Among their many videos on YouTube, they can be seen at various locales playing Scarlatti sonatas, two-guitar settings of Beatles tunes, or Concierto Madrigal, Joaquín Rodrigo’s formidable work for two guitars and orchestra. At the other end of the spectrum is their playful single-guitar-four-hands rendition of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca.”
Asked how she approaches learning new music, Montesinos says, “At the beginning, I like to play through once to get a general impression of the character of the piece. Then I take small passages that need work and try to develop good reflexes and learn them well. After that, I work on bigger phrases and then put larger sections together. Once I have the right fingerings and movements down, it gives me the security to play through the entire piece. If you always play through the whole piece all the time when you still have problems with some passages, you will just be repeating the same mistakes. That makes it more difficult to play the piece correctly than if you had worked on the problems from the beginning.”
Montesinos and Tamayo both play guitars built by Australian luthier Simon Marty with a scale length of 650mm, and strung with Savarez Alliance Blue strings. “Mine has a spruce top and Marco’s has a cedar top,” she says. “For the duo, they have different sounds, but go together very nicely. I feel that spruce best suits my playing.” Montesinos did not bring her Simon Marty to Boston, and borrowed an instrument built by Massachusetts luthier Stephan Connor. Its European spruce top, rosewood back and sides, and Connor’s trademark interlocking fan bracing system provided a traditional tone quality and a powerful sound in Montesinos’ hands. She praised the guitar from the stage. (Connor relates that Montesinos and Tamayo have since ordered spruce and cedar models.)
Montesinos is among a growing number of highly accomplished women pursuing careers as concert guitarists. Using Spain as her reference point, she credits societal evolution for the appearance of more female performers.
“The mentality was different in the past,” she says. “In Spain, the woman was at home with the kids and the man was working. Women couldn’t work. Maybe that is why there were more men than women in the field. Everything is more free now.”
This article originally appeared the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar.