The Importance of Repertoire: 5 Classical Guitarists Weigh In

By Blair Jackson

In the grand scheme of things, nothing is more important for classical-guitar professionals, and those who aspire to grow into the field, than playing with creativity, passion, power, and, of course, a high degree of technical precision and acuity.

But not to be overlooked or taken lightly is the issue of repertoire. What selection of pieces spanning 15, 30, 45, or more minutes will allow a guitarist to plumb the depths of his or her soul, imbue the material with a combination of confidence and an unmistakable mastery, and thoroughly entertain an audience that might range from master guitarists to people with little or no previous exposure to classical-guitar music?

The good news is that there has never been a broader range of pieces written and/or arranged for guitar than there is today—nor an audience as receptive to pieces that fall outside the traditional strictures of so-called “classical” music. It’s not quite “anything goes,” but it’s no longer unusual to find programs that span five centuries of music and include arrangements of contemporary pop or jazz tunes, as well.

At the school level, guitar pedagogy has traditionally been quite inclusive, with students exposed to the Baroque perfection of Bach and Scarlatti, the great early-19th century Italian and Spanish composers, other European Romantics, the instrument’s evolution in Central and South America, and, once that foundation has been laid, some of the more adventurous and idiosyncratic modern figures in guitar music. Along the way, guitarists discover the styles and composers that make their hearts sing, that “speak” to them, and which they are most comfortable performing. In that way, a program finds the guitarist, and if the stars are aligned, that program will move an audience or, in the case of young guitarists trying to impress judges in a competition, sway critical evaluators. So picking the right pieces to play, whether its money or a competition on the line, is a vital skill every guitarist must develop.

We recently contacted a handful of guitarists and asked them to weigh in on issues connected to repertoire, including competitions, concerts, or commercial CDs. Participating were regular CG writers Derek Hasted, Chris Dumigan, and Steve Marsh (who sent in their comments via e-mail from England), and US-based guitarists Christopher Mallett and Yuri Liberzon, whom I interviewed by phone.

Yuri Liberzon

Yuri Liberzon

Russian-born Yuri Liberzon studied guitar at the Yale School of Music and Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Conservatory, where Manuel Barrueco was a principal teacher. He recently released his first solo guitar CD, Ascension, which has works that run the gamut from Bach and Scarlatti to the Beatles and jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

I never thought of a “correct” order of how to learn things. But I wanted to challenge myself consistently, so I chose pieces that would let me try all time periods and also touch on the major composers. In general, I never wanted to play music that everybody else played, except for some of the masterpieces, like Bach’s “Chaconne” or some of the well-known pieces by Scarlatti, Piazzolla, Leo Brouwer, those types of composers. I was very selective.

Especially these days, you want to stand out, and one way to do that is to play something unique or different, whether it’s a piece that’s written specifically for you or it’s a modern piece. However, I don’t want it to be too “modern,” if that means it’s inaccessible to general audiences. It has to be something people can relate to. I just commissioned a piece from Konstantin Vassiliev, who is from the same town I’m from in Russia, and it starts off very tonally and relatable—it’s based on a folk melody—but then he goes and explores some atonal and kind of avant-garde sounds, before he goes back to the melody you can relate to.

For my CD, I decided to choose pieces from my live concert program. I’ve changed it a bit since then; I edited some pieces and took out some. But what I like about this program is its variety. Not that many people have done the whole Bach Partita [No. 2 in D minor for solo violin]. Of course the “Chaconne” is the popular piece from that, but it’s the fifth—and last—movement, and I think the whole thing is one of the greatest pieces of music I know of, and the “Chaconne” should be heard in context of the whole piece.

But I’m also playing the Beatles, I’m playing Keith Jarrett, so it’s not just what people call “classical music” anymore. Audiences like variety and they also like things that are familiar to them. I used to play the Beatles toward the end, and I usually start with some Baroque music—Scarlatti or Bach. It’s much more difficult for audiences to sit through a concert of pieces by composers they haven’t heard of before, but it’s still important to have [some of those], along with things people have heard before or relate to. I want to keep playing different styles.

I would like to learn more concertos. I’m also very interested in arranging music for guitar—things that have not been played on the guitar. I’d like to play “Take Me to Church,” by [Irish singer-songwriter] Hozier. Classical music is going through a change and I think audiences are more open to new things. And I think people want to hear more variety.

Below, Liberzon plays Manuel Barrueco’s arrangement of a portion of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert:

Chris Dumigan

Chris Dumigan

Manchester, England-based Chris Dumigan has had a long, varied career in music, with stints in folk groups and working in musical theater in various capacities. He also played classical guitar from an early age, and that is what has consumed him most for the past three decades or so, as a composer of considerable note, transcriber of works by Barrios and others, critic for CG, and a member of the Acoustic Moods trio with Tony Ward and bassist Dan Coghill.


In the past, when repertoire had to be picked for a concert or competition, guitarists felt that they only had limited choices to choose from. Perhaps this stems from the fact that 30 or 40 years ago much of the guitarist’s repertoire was considered not challenging enough when compared to other instruments’ music. Since then, however, the number of [sheet-music] publications for guitarists has multiplied significantly and changed that picture. Gone are the days that all one could pick up were the Schott editions of Segovia, some Novello, one or two Eschig publications and little else. Now? The choices are almost endless!

There are wonderful pieces by modern composers such as Thierry Tisserand, Eugène den Hoed, Mikhail Sytchev, Nick Fletcher, Nelly Decamp, Jim Ferguson, Vincent Lindsey-Clark, Livio Torresan, and Brian Wright in all manner of differing styles, plus 19th-century composers such as Simon Molitor, Ferdinand Rebay, and Paul Schutz, to name just three, who have one thing in common—they are still grossly underplayed by all but a very few in-the-know.

Of course, there is a place for the old warhorses—there has to be—but in moderation. There is no excuse for turning up to a guitar recital to be met solely with the same old Dowland, Sor, Albéniz, Granados, et al, with all the choices we have now. The catch-22 is that guitarists often complain that they are so busy they don’t have time to learn new pieces. Well, they should make time because if the guitar is going to be considered—as it should be—every bit as relevant as all the other solo instruments that people often think are superior, guitarists have to vary their repertoire. Forty years ago there was little the players could do about it; now there is.

Christopher Mallett

Christopher Mallett

Originally from San Diego, California, Christopher Mallett received his bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and his master’s from the Yale School of Music, where he studied with Benjamin Verdery (among others). He is co-owner and teacher at the California Conservatory of Guitar, and performs both as a solo guitarist and as part of DuoSF with Robert Miller. 

When I came up, going through school and the conservatory, you were required to play the standard pieces—Bach, some Fernando Sor, [Mauro] Giuliani; something from all the different eras, because what it’s really about is making yourself more well-rounded as a musician, so you’re ready for any situation as a professional. With my students, I try to make the repertoire very broad for them, so they’re able to tackle a Bach sonata or one of the cello suites, and they’re able to do a classical sonata as well, so they understand the form and can analyze the music, eventually without the teacher’s help.

In competitions you’ll run across guitarists who try to impress [the judges] by playing some really difficult piece, and [as a judge] it is nice to hear some things that are different from the usual pieces, but really what’s most important is not what the piece is as much as if it’s played well. If it’s a simple piece but they really handle it well—if they have all the dynamics and the phrasing down—compared to someone who plays some huge piece by [Johann Kaspar] Mertz, or something they obviously aren’t ready to play, we’ll choose the person who has control over the piece. It’s important that players know their own limits.

[As for creating a program to play for a concert], I think it’s important to have variety, and they should be thinking beyond the guitarists [in the audience], because our goal is to spread music to the general public. As an instrument that’s not as big as the violin or the piano, I think we should be playing these pieces for an audience we have to expect has never heard them before, so if that means playing some of the more popular “warhorses,” they will be new to some people and many of them are great pieces.

I also think in small doses you can throw in some modern pieces for any audience. I don’t think you want to go in and play a full program of [Luciano] Berio and Milton Babbitt. But there are certain 20th-century composers audiences really like, such as Nikita Koshkin, Dusan Bogdanovic, Sergio Assad, and [Leo] Brouwer. You can program a couple of pieces like that and even an audience that’s new to classical guitar will probably enjoy it. Like at Marcin Dylla’s concert [in San Francisco in April 2015, reviewed in the Fall 2015 issue of CG]—he played a lot of new music, but he was able to convey it in a way that showed he was clearly in total control, so the audience felt comfortable and safe listening to it.

On the other side of that, I think some people in the audience like knowing that there is a pop influence in [some pieces], because now a lot of audiences that go to these concerts are people who don’t strictly listen to classical music. They might have been raised on the Beatles and classic rock. So going to a classical-guitar concert and hearing a Beatles song is maybe nostalgic for them, but it can show them something new and different about these songs they know, because of the arrangements.

For my debut solo album [The Porcelain Tower], I didn’t set out to play standard repertoire, but I did throw in a little Villa-Lobos. I wanted to play things I really enjoyed and which I felt inspired me as a musician. I thought, “If I love it, I can play it in a way that listeners will enjoy it.” I knew it wasn’t going to sell a million copies, so I wanted to have fun. I wasn’t out to make something heavy that I was forcing upon people.

I was hoping people would hear it and, if they liked something, it might lead them to explore other genres and even explore beyond classical guitar—maybe look at more modern music and help them understand that all modern music isn’t really crazy.

Steve Marsh

Steve Marsh

A music reviewer for CG for more than 30 years now, Steve Marsh of Derbyshire (UK), is a guitar teacher, player, and prolific composer and arranger with more than 300 works to his credit, many of them published by top music houses in Europe and the US, and some of which have been used in the examination syllabus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Associated Board of the Royal College of Music. In 2000 he formed Lathkill Music Publishers, which has published a wide variety of classical works by many composers.

In my experience, adjudicators of higher-grade and diploma-level guitarists expect the majority, if not all, of the following abilities when judging a performance:

The player needs to demonstrate the ability to construct a thoughtful, contrasting program, taking in pieces from a wide range of periods and styles (unless it is a more specific “themed” program). He or she should exhibit a sense of musical insight and a confident understanding of the various stylistic differences between the chosen pieces, which in themselves should contain a range of techniques. Whatever program is chosen, the player should try and strongly communicate their passion for each particular item.

With regard to the repertoire, the player should be aware that choosing “celebrated” works which have been heard countless times will understandably invite comparisons with the best of them, and unless the player has something different to give to the interpretation of these pieces, they should be chosen with care. Music that stretches the technical and/or musical boundaries of the performer should be avoided; a beautiful performance of, say, Francisco Tárrega’s “Lágrima” is far and away better, and more preferable, than a lukewarm version of Isaac Albéniz’s oft-played “Asturias.”

Herewith, some suggested repertoire representing composers from the 16th century to the present in a variety of styles. (Obviously time restraints may limit the number of movements performed in the larger works):
Eduardo Sainz de la Maza: “Hommage a la Guitare” and “Campanas del Alba;” Sergio Assad: Sonata No. 1; Daniel Bachelar: “Monsieur’s Almaine;” J. S. Bach: Lute Suite No. 2 BWV 997; Agustín Barrios: “Danza Paraguaya No. 1” and “Prelude in C minor;” Leo Brouwer: “El Decameron Negro;” Abel Carlevaro: “Campo” and “Tamboriles” (from Preludios Americanos); Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: “Tonadilla on the name ‘Andres Segovia’” and “Capriccio Diabolico;” Johann Kaspar Mertz: “Hungarian Fantasy” and “Elegie;” Manuel Ponce: Sonata Romántica.

Giulio Regondi: “Reverie-Nocturne;” Joaquín Rodrigo: “Passacaglia (from Tres Piezas Espanolas); Fernando Sor: “Grand Solo Op.14;” Francisco Tárrega: A small set made up from a selection of his miniatures, such as “Adelita,” “Marieta,” and “Maria;” Milan Tesar: Four Ballad Stories; Mauro Giuliani: “Grand Overture Op. 61;” John Dowland: “Lachrimae Pavan;” Roland Dyens: “Felicidade.”

Below, Mabel Millán plays Eduardo Sainz de la Maza’s Campanas del Alba:

Derek Hasted

Derek Hasted

Veteran CG writer and UK South Coast denizen Derek Hasted first started teaching guitar when he was 15, long before receiving a degree at Cambridge and being awarded a diploma from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. In 1988 he founded the Guitar Workshop and formed what is now known as the Hampshire Guitar Orchestra [HAGO]. Besides leading the ensemble, he has contributed many arrangements for the group.

There’s a temptation to say that guitar competitions are primarily a measure of technical prowess, and it’s true that recent competition winners have shown a level of ability that even as little as a generation ago would have made eyes water. But a diet of nothing but technical showmanship is not a balanced diet, and a successful program will allow a player’s breadth of expression as much room as his depth of ability.

As someone who has left it rather too late to storm to the top, I have nonetheless programmed-up and played in about 175 concerts, and there’s no doubt that a fast-paced “crowd-pleaser” always gets more applause. But just as a diet of fast food quickly loses appeal, so does a concert of technical showmanship—I sat through one of those a few years ago and my initial astonishment at the technical prowess soon gave rise to mischievous thoughts of “one-trick ponies” and eventual boredom. My own program choices are steered by something an old friend of mine—chairman of a local theater—once said to me: “Make ’em laugh, and then make ’em cry.” In other words, take the audience on a rollercoaster ride of emotion.

The guitar isn’t as efficient at peppering the audience with notes as a piano or violin, but it has a unique mix of polyphony, vibrato, tone, and volume. And ultimately, it is the mastery of these that will serve a competition winner well when he later has to impress audiences to earn a living.I’d hate to think of a fast player only being able to afford fast food, while a player who takes time to shape every note and every phrase using the full range of the guitar, can dine in a restaurant with a full range of food.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Classical Guitar.