Thirty years ago this past July, a budding young Iranian guitarist named Lily Afshar—now among the elite players in the world—was given the opportunity to perform for Andrés Segovia at a master class at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. Segovia was 93 at the time, in the final year of his life (he died in June 1987). Yet you can tell from the video—in which she plays the famous Grand Solo by Fernando Sor (1778–1839; the piece was first published in 1810)—that the Maestro was still sharp and engaged as Lily played for him. In a 2006 interview with writer Tom Watson for modernguitars.com, she described her experience:
“The 1986 Segovia master class at the University of Southern California was July 16–26. Hundreds of guitarists that wanted to participate had submitted tapes as part of the selection process. Twelve were chosen. Each night, all 12 of us would be on stage, and one-by-one, eight or so would sit in front of Segovia and perform. We had to play pieces from the Segovia repertoire, that was one thing that was understood, with his fingering and interpretation. Basically, we had to play everything the way he played it.
“One of the pieces I played was Sevilla. In the middle section, the slow section, he stopped me and said, ‘Where are you from?’ Quickly I started thinking, should I say ‘Iran’ or ‘Persia? Iran had been through the revolution and had the hostage thing, and maybe didn’t have such a good name at the moment. So, I was thinking Persia sounds better and he’s older and maybe he was more used to the name Persia than Iran. Such a simple question and so many thoughts were going through my mind. [Laughs]
“And then I said, ‘Persia.’ He paused and said, ‘Yes, I can see you have the flamenco spirit and the Persian blood in you.’ That was a compliment, and everybody clapped. I was relieved because I didn’t know what he was thinking.
“When I was about to play the ‘Suite in A Minor’ by Ponce, as soon as he saw the music, the edition that I brought that credited Miguel Abloniz, Segovia said, ‘This guy’s a thief.’ According to Segovia, what Abloniz had done was listen to Segovia’s recording, transcribe it, then publish it as Abloniz’s edition. That was all news to me. But luckily, he then winked at me and let me play.
“As to playing for Segovia, for me, I wasn’t scared or anything. A lot of people were. I wasn’t for two reasons. One, I was brought up listening to Segovia. My goal was always to play as well as he did. It felt like I was seeing my old friend when I sat next to him, or like he was my grandfather. It felt like family, like I had grown up with this man. As a little child in Iran I had all of his records. Those two weeks between Boston University and Boston Conservatory [early in her guitar education in the U.S.], when I didn’t know what was going to happen, what did I do? I would listen to his recordings and that’s what kept me going.
“The second reason was that I had studied with [Oscar] Ghiglia, who had studied with Segovia, and I knew what kind of things Segovia liked and what kind of musicianship he looked for. So I knew what was important, like the singing of the music, which Ghiglia had taught me to do. I felt well-equipped to study with Segovia because I knew what he liked and I was prepared. So, a lot of the things he said to me weren’t shocking. And then he would switch among three languages in the lessons. All of a sudden, from English he’d start speaking Spanish, but since I was tri-lingual I could switch, too, and that didn’t bother me either. Many other people were like, ‘What did he say?’
“You have to remember, too, that we were in front of cameras and an audience of 500 people, maybe more. We were performing. And you didn’t know what he was going to say next and sometimes he would mumble his words so it wasn’t always easy to understand what he had said. But still, I felt better equipped than some of the other people because of the reasons I mentioned.”
You can read the complete interview, which is one of the best we’ve seen with her, on her website. And here’s a link to Lily Afshar playing Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau BWV 1006a for Segovia.