One of my favorite classical guitar CDs of 2015 was Hilary Field’s Premieres, which was exactly what its title promised—first recordings of ten pieces by contemporary composers from all over the world, including Argentina, Chile, Poland, Russia, Greece, Australia, Brazil, and the US. Among the best-known names are Jorge Morel (who has two works on the disc), Richard Charlton (whose four-part Suite Latina is a highlight), the Brasil Guitar Duo’s Douglas Lora, and the prolific Gerard Drozd. It’s always something of a risk to hit an audience with an entire program of new music, but the Seattle, Washington-based Field chose the pieces carefully over a long period and made sure they reflected her own aesthetic, which has always leaned toward more lyrical and accessible works.
“I do love a good melody,” she says by phone from her home. “I also appreciate more abstract music on some levels, but not as much inside my heart. In my heart I appreciate more lyrical music; that’s what speaks most to me.”
Field has had a particularly long relationship with the music of Jorge Morel, the brilliant Argentine composer/guitarist who has lived in New York for decades. All four of her instrumental albums since her 1992 debut, Music of Spain and Latin America, have included pieces by him: On that disc, his popular five-part Sonatina; the follow-up, Ballad Stories, included Suite del Sur, Danzas Para Emiko, and the world premiere of “Berceuse for Guitar and String Quartet”; her 2013 duo project with viola player Gwen Franz, Airoso, featured Morel’s “Homage to a Dance,” among works by Piazzolla, Bach, Telemann and others; and now Premieres has two lovely Morel works, Suite for Olga and Echoes del Sur.
Field credits Morel with helping shape her path as a guitarist. Growing up in Rosalyn and Brookville, Long Island, New York, she took violin lessons in early elementary school, but soon shifted to guitar. Once she discovered classical guitar in the sixth grade, Field decided she wanted to study the instrument seriously.
“I loved playing and the sound of the guitar,” she says. “I loved that you play it with your hands and there was nothing between your hands and the strings and the music. I felt a very close connection to it. I was already reading music, so I picked up that aspect of it pretty quickly. And then I found teachers who encouraged me.”
Beginning in high school, Field was shepherded by two exceptional and well-known teachers—Pasquale (Pat) Bianculli and Jerry Willard—whom she followed to the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “I learned the music that Pat and Jerry loved, which was a broad range,” she says. “Jerry’s done so many transcriptions and editing and fingering, and I got to watch him go through that process when I was growing up, with all the books he was developing.”
In her late teenage years Field was particularly fond of playing Bach and other Baroque music, but says, “when I got a little older I heard the music of Jorge Morel for the first time and I was just blown away; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was the kind of music where I just thought, ‘I wish I wrote that; I have to play this music!’ That was my instant reaction. So that was a strong pull for me.
“Morel combined the beautiful South American harmonies and soul with the structure of classical and sometimes Baroque music,” Field adds. “I also liked the way it was structured like classical music but it still sounded so free. It sounded like you were creating a story as you were playing this music.”
Through the years, as Field championed Morel’s work, she got to know him personally, so naturally she approached him for her Premieres project. “I had learned his [unrecorded] Suite for Olga, which he wrote for his late wife,” she says. “I went to visit him with my family, and I didn’t have my guitar, so he gave me his guitar to play and I was playing his pieces for him. He had never really heard Suite for Olga played. He had written it, of course, but he doesn’t play all the music that he writes, and he writes it by hand. So as I was playing, it was the first time he’d ever heard it played back to himself, and I remember this rush of energy I got from this—‘Here I am in Jorge Morel’s apartment, playing his guitar, playing his piece on his guitar for him.’ It was a very exciting moment.” A few weeks after that encounter, Morel wrote the two-part Echoes del Sur specifically for Field’s Premieres.
Two other works on the disc are dedicated to Field. She had met the Chilean composer, guitarist, poet, and filmmaker Alberto Cumplido a few years ago when she played in Chile and Peru on a tour sponsored by the US Embassy. Cumplido contributed the gorgeous “Retrato Antiguo (a la memoria de John Dowland)” to Premieres. “When I told him about the project,” Field says, “he said, ‘I will write music for you—for your hands.’” In the case of Premiere’s closing meditation, “Reluctant Farewell,” by Rick Sowash, “I actually met him by e-mail through a mutual friend,” Field says. “He had composed some music for a friend, but he wanted the piece to be recorded, so they approached me. He’s the only composer on this CD that’s not actually a guitarist. He often writes chamber music and I think this piece came out beautifully well.”
The other pieces on Premieres came through various channels. For instance, in the case of Charlton’s marvelous Suite Latina, “Pasqaule [Bianculli] gave me a CD of flute-and-guitar music he and [his wife] Kathleen McDonald put out, and that had a Richard Charlton piece on it that I really loved, so I wrote to Mr. Charlton and he was very happy to have me look at some pieces he’d written that had not been recorded. My favorite was Suite Latina, which is so beautiful—it was like I’d heard it before, but it was still brand-new.”
As for “Northeastern Lullaby,” by Douglas Lora, “He’s in the Brasil Guitar Duo and he comes to Washington State often to do classes, so I had met him, and I had heard him play that piece and I loved it. However, he had not written the music down, so I videotaped him playing it, he gave me some instructions about it, and then I took the video home and spent a long time hitting the ‘play’ and ‘pause’ buttons until I figured it out, and then I wrote it out.”
And then there is Field’s lone writing contribution, “Donzella: Fantasia on a Sephardic Lullaby,” which is a creative extension on a traditional tune called “Durme Hermosa Donzella,” which Field included on Siente: Night Songs from Around the World, a CD she recorded with singer Patrice O’Neill and a chamber ensemble. “I don’t write as much as I would like,” she comments.
“One of my future projects is to write more. I know it’s not that common in classical music for people to compose and perform their own pieces. But when children learn to read, they get to write their own stories, too. So when people learn music, they can learn other people’s music but they can also create their own. And understanding how both of those things are done will help you be a better interpreter.”
Field moved to the Pacific Northwest in her 20s (“It’s a much gentler place to live than New York,” she says) and has been entrenched in Seattle’s classical guitar world ever since. She was head of the guitar department at Seattle Pacific University and also at Pacific Lutheran University in nearby Tacoma.
“To make a living as a guitarist, you need to have a conglomeration of things that you do,” she notes, “and the steadiest source of income for most people is teaching. I really enjoy teaching, sharing music, and watching my students grow and develop a love for music. I feel like I’m actually contributing something. It’s always been a very important part of what I do.”
For a number of years, Field mostly stayed close to home as she and her husband, Andrew Ratshin (of the folk trio Uncle Bonsai), raised their now-16-year-old daughter, Emma, who plays piano, viola, and ukulele “but does not want to play guitar,” Field says with a chuckle. “There are plenty around the house if she changes her mind.” The last couple of years Field has started to play out of the area more, and this spring she’ll be appearing at the Long Island Guitar Festival in Brookville, New York, a homecoming of sorts for her.
Field also has a new job. “I just started as director of the Seattle Classic Guitar Society [it was founded in 1958], so that takes some time,” she says. “We have a great board of directors and there are all sorts of things we do—we have an international [concert] series, free concerts at the museum, and education outreach to underserved communities. So there’s plenty to do. Always.”