BY ANNETT RICHTER, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE MINNESOTA GUITAR SOCIETY
(A note from CG editor Blair Jackson: I’m happy to share with you another in-depth interview conducted by the Minnesota Guitar’s Society‘s Annett Richter; this time the exciting young Spanish guitarist Andrea González Caballero. Thank you, Annett!)
Welcome, Andrea. It is a great pleasure to have you with us for this interview. We are excited to hear more from you about your past and current work, travels, and experiences as a young performing artist. What was your first encounter with the classical guitar, and what struck you most about this instrument? What made you decide to pursue the guitar?
To be honest, I don’t even remember my first encounter with the classical guitar. There is a story that my family always tells about me when I was about one or two years old. There was a program on TV where Paco de Lucía was playing, and they say that I was completely captured by his playing and that I didn’t even move until he had finished his performance. Later, when I was seven years old, I asked my mother to teach me how to play the guitar and I started learning it. I loved the sound and also how challenging it was to learn a new piece. This kept me motivated. I started improving and I never quit playing, so I decided to make it a lifelong relationship.
You come from Spain, the cradle of the six-string classical guitar. What part of Spain are you from? Besides your mother being a guitar teacher, did you hear a lot of guitar music where you grew up?
I was born in Eibar, a city located in the Basque Country, the North of Spain. I have to say, I grew up surrounded by music because of my mother, but apart from this and the two years I spent at the music school in Eibar, my environment was not a very musical one. None of my friends were musicians, so the relationship between the guitar and me was a very personal and intimate one. I remember practicing at home and, after that, going out with my family and friends, and not talking about my “musical life” with anyone. I liked having my independence between my personal life and “professional life” at that time. Even now it is still a bit similar…
Can you tell us a little about the first solo concerts you ever played? Where did they take place and how old were you? What are some fond memories you have of these performances?
The first concert I remember was a guitar duo concert I played with a friend of mine. We played in Eibar and in another city close by. Later, I remember playing as a soloist with a guitar orchestra at the age of nine at the Kursaal Theater in San Sebastián, Spain. My first hour-long solo concert came when I was 11 years old, and I played in Pamplona and at the Casa Luthier in Barcelona. I have good memories from those years because back then, playing a concert was not something as formal and professional to me as it is now. My parents were always with me, and the concerts were an excuse to travel together.
What have you found to be most rewarding in your career as an international performing artist so far?
What is most rewarding to me is to see the audience enjoying the concert I am playing, and to feel that they have had a good time listening to my performance. The nice thing is that it does not matter in which country you are or what cultures there are in the audience. I have always experienced that the music makes people react in such a good way that it is indescribable.
It was a great pleasure to hear your concert for the Minnesota Guitar Society in St. Paul earlier this year and to meet you afterwards. We were lucky to have you with us before the pandemic caused us to cancel the remainder of our concert season. I was moved by your musicality and interpretation. You have tremendous agility in your right hand, and your playing during fast passages in particular appeared effortless. How do you practice obtaining this kind of speed while maintaining a clear and articulate sound?
The first thing is to have quality practice time. Be sure that your body, arms, and hands are as relaxed as possible for most of the time you spend with the guitar. Then, it is very important to learn how to practice and how to distribute our practice time in an effective way, so that we spend time on passages or problems that have to be solved, rather than constantly playing through a piece from beginning to end. For fast passages, we have to practice slowly. I know it is a cliché, but we need to transform the difficulty into clear information. After we understand our hands’ movements and how relaxed we should react to them, we can start speeding up. When we are on stage and we are nervous, we tend to play faster than usual, so it is important to not let those moments lead our playing.
Working on staying relaxed while practicing or performing can be a daunting task as we focus on the music we play. Is there a particular technique that has worked well for you for keeping your body relaxed while you play?
It is very important to feel relaxed while playing because we need our muscles to perform in the best way. If we tense them up, we will be fighting against our body and, as a result, against the music. I always warm up before a concert and take a deep breath till I feel I am in control of my body. It makes me feel more connected and aware of all my body movements. While playing, our mind has the power to control the music and at the same time to control our hands and fingers. We have to educate our mind not to send wrong messages to our hands. When we find a difficult passage, our mind is the first one that creates tension and warns us about an upcoming “danger.” I would say that educating our mind would result in a more relaxed way of playing.
How do you choose repertoire for a concert, and what kinds of works are you interested in exploring in the future?
It depends on the place where I will play or for what the performance is scheduled. Lately, I have been working more on putting together repertoire based on Spanish music from composers such as Isaac Albéniz, Joaquín Rodrigo, or Regino Sáinz de la Maza. After so many years with the guitar, I wanted to bring a part of my native culture to the audience. When I put a program together, I try to be coherent and imagine how the flow from one piece to the next would sound. I like having a panoramic view of the program to see if it makes sense and if it conveys to the audience the message I want to share with them through the pieces I am playing.
How has the current pandemic affected your performance schedule? Are you staying in touch with audiences despite the current situation?
All the concerts I had scheduled were canceled or have been postponed to 2021. It is a very hard situation for musicians and artists. I think we have a very tough time at the moment, and we have to find new ways to share our music. We have been through moments when everybody was sharing online content, often for free, as a way to express ourselves and to be connected with others. After living with this new situation for the past few months, we have to learn, look around, and find a way in which we want to re-adapt our professional lives. The situation will be very unstable in the upcoming months, too, so all we can do is to create our own work, and build a system that does not depend on external factors and that is connected with the audience virtually. I try to stay in touch with the audience by being active on social media Instagram and doing new projects I can share with them. It is difficult to manage. It seems that now, we have to be musicians, producers, and social media managers all in one person.
Very true. Presenting musical performances via channels online requires us to learn how to accomplish such a goal in the first place, what we need to know how to get there, and how to share our news with listeners in the most effective ways. Speaking of learning, do you teach guitar? If so, what do you find most gratifying and most challenging about teaching?
Yes, when I was between 18 and 19 years old and I moved to Germany, I started teaching at a guitar school in Düsseldorf. I also had private students there. During the last few years, I have been invited to give master classes in many different places.
I like teaching. I like seeing how students improve and I enjoy the interaction with them. I think the best teacher is the one that knows how to adapt to each student without losing their essence. It is very important to analyze the students, not only in the way they play, but also in the way they think. Once you get this, you can start working more on technical or musical aspects of the student’s playing. Teaching has to be a personalized experience with the students; a teacher should not try to repeat the same things to all their students. The learning process consists of so many steps and phases that teachers have to be able to adapt their knowledge to the specific moment in time in the student’s development.
Operaworld Magazine has described you as “the female voice of the Spanish guitar.” Besides Spain being your home country, can you tell us a bit more about what makes you feel connected to the Spanish guitar? Its performers, its composers, its repertoire, or its history, or perhaps a combination of these?
I feel connected to the instrument because it is part of me and of my culture. Every time I listen to Spanish music and every time I see dancers, artists, or Spanish performers such as Andrés Segovia, who did so much for the guitar, it brings memories back to me—memories that I have lived and ones in which the Spanish guitar is present.
Are there other female classical guitarists from Spain that have inspired you?
Yes, starting with my two female teacher—my mother Ana Maria Caballero and the guitarist Carmen Becerra. I also met the Spanish guitarist Margarita Escarpa when I was very young. I learned many things from all of them.
What made you decide to study guitar at the Robert Schumann Musikhochschule in Düsseldorf, Germany, and how did you then move on to the United States to study with Maestro Manuel Barrueco at Peabody?
I moved to Düsseldorf because, when I was 12 years old, I met the Cuban composer and guitarist Joaquín Clerch in Spain, and I had a master class with him. I was amazed by his lesson and I wanted to study with him more regularly. He was living in Düsseldorf and I was in Spain, so I started traveling to Germany with my mother every two months. We worked together for 5 years, until I was 17, and I finished the program in Spain. At that point, I wanted to keep working with him and so I moved to Germany. Also, Germany has a fascinating cultural life and I wanted to experience it.
I moved to the United States in August of 2018. I had met Manuel Barrueco many years ago in Córdoba, and I played for him in a master class, in 2008, I think. In 2017, I finished my master’s degree in guitar performance at the University of Alicante in Spain, where Maestro Barrueco was one of the invited teachers. I was very interested in working with him for several days, and when the last day arrived, we talked about the possibility of me studying with him in Baltimore. I started the process for coming to the U.S., and everything worked well that I decided to start this new chapter of my life here in the U.S.
Tell us more about your experience in the guitar program at Peabody. It’s terrific to see that Maestro Barrueco teaches such a diverse and international group of students there. In what ways has the program been particularly enriching for you as a guitarist and musician?
One of the things that I have admired more and more about Manuel Barrueco is the sense of professionalism he projects. After so many years of a successful career, it is remarkable how much he cares about the quality of the work we, as his students, do. Being part of his studio has been a great experience. This past February, before the lockdown, the Manuel Barrueco studio played two pieces as part of a concert, and we had Sergio Assad as our conductor, Meng Su as a guest artist, and Maestro Barrueco playing with us. We also flew to California to be part of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, and we collaborated there with composers and singers to premiere new pieces for voice and guitar. These experiences were very interesting and made my two years at the Peabody Institute very special ones.
It’s fantastic to hear that you have been part of a recently founded music academy that collaborates with composers and focuses on bringing music to underprivileged members of society. Forging such connections at this stage is important during one’s formative years, and these connections shape, in addition to your teachers, your own artistic outlook. What are some of the most important lessons your teachers have imparted to you?
They have taught me how to look into the music we play and value its beauty. They have shared the importance of being respectful to the music. I always keep in mind that we are not the most important part of the process of creating music; the music will always be the most important thing. Sometimes we are absorbed by fast passages, by wanting to play incredible scales, but this is not what will last.
You have performed at many international guitar competitions, and you have received more than 20 international prizes, among them First and Special Prizes at the XL International Competition Fernando Sor (Rome, 2012 ) and First Prize at the XIII Alhambra International Guitar Competition (Valencia, 2016 ). What wisdom has your preparation for and your participation in these competitions taught you for your development as a performing artist?
When you are an undergraduate student, you don’t usually have performances regularly. Rather, this is a time to learn and develop your skills, and I think that competitions help students to experience very demanding moments when all their capacities have to work at a very high level. In playing competitions, I have learned many things, most of the time from challenging experiences. I have come to value competitions as a part of my musical career but not as a long-term goal.
Your website shows that you had a concert tour scheduled through Australia for later this year which unfortunately has been cancelled. Will this tour be rescheduled?
I think so. We will try to reschedule it for 2021. I was very excited about traveling to Australia, one of the countries I have most wanted to visit. This past April, I performed a single concert online, organized by the Melbourne Guitar Festival; this was an opportunity for me to be engaged with the audience in Australia. It took place during these difficult months we all are currently experiencing, but it was nice to do it.
What are some other goals that you have for the near future?
I am working on different projects simultaneously. I have concerts not just as a soloist but with other instrumentalists as well. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time. I will be premiering new pieces composed for solo guitar, and I also have a personal project that is still developing which will take a while until I can share it with all of you.
Wonderful. Besides the guitar, what other areas of creativity fascinate you, and what do you enjoy doing when you have free time?
When I was a child, I took lessons in ballet dancing—though this is not my cup of tea—and some in painting. I have tried to keep up with the latter, although it is just a hobby. I mostly use oil or acrylic paints because I love to experiment with different techniques and see which one works better for the abstract painting I have in mind. It is very relaxing to me, and it helps me to unwind.
* * * * *
Annett Richter, a native of Halle, Germany, is Vice President of the Minnesota Guitar Society and serves on its Board of Directors. She is active as a scholar, teacher, and performer (lute, guitar) in Fargo/Moorhead and Minneapolis/St. Paul. She has taught at Concordia College (Moorhead), North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead, and the University of Missouri–Columbia. She is dedicated to sharing with readers the paths, encounters, and contributions that 20th- and 21st-century female guitarists from across the globe have traveled, experienced, and made on their way to make today’s world of the classical guitar ever more diverse. She holds a PhD in Musicology from the University of Minnesota, and she studied classical guitar with Jeffrey Van and lute with Lucas Harris.
Click here to read Annett Richter’s previous CG interview with Bokyung Byun!