Monday, March 2, 2015

Hideki Yamaya talks in depth about the Romantic guitar and Musica Maestrale's third season

Hideki Yamaya
On February 18th I sat down to chat with Musica Maestrale's artistic director Hideki Yamaya about some of the unique and exciting programming still to come in the third season of the ensemble. As always, it was an informative and interesting conversation.

LW: I'm talking with Hideki Yamaya, artistic director, lutenist and jack-of-all-[plucked]-stringed instruments for the early music collective Musica Maestrale. We're talking about season 3! First though, how did last season go?

HY: That was such a long time ago I don't remember! (Laughing). No, I think it went really well. I think our third season is off to a good start--we've had two concerts, and the third one is coming up. And that's what I'd like to talk about.

LW: That's right...we're already on to the third concert. So tell us a little about concert three of season three.

HY: For this concert we are inviting back John Schneiderman, who is my former guitar and lute teacher and my current duet partner. We had him for our first season to do baroque lute and baroque mandolin duets, and this time we are doing 19th-century music. Guitar duets from Germany and Austria, on period instruments. [First Christian Church, Saturday March 7 @ 730 pm. Tickets available at the door or at ]

LW: Excellent--I remember his performance well. He's a truly great guitarist. So who are we going to hear?

HY: We will have duets by Johann Kaspar Mertz, who was born in Bratislava, which makes him a Slovak composer, but his career was in Vienna.  He's not a household name, but guitarists would know him, as he's probably one of the better known guitar composers from the Romantic period. And then we will do a duet by Beethoven, of all people, because you need that big name to put on your marquee. It's an arrangement for two guitars of one of his piano sonatas. It was arranged by a contemporary of Beethoven; he was actually born in the same year (1770.) Ferdinando Carulli was his name. It's a really masterful arrangement that works extremely well on guitar.

LW. Excellent. It's funny; this sort of goes back to the conversation you and I were just having about who was doing what with the guitar, and when. So how does--I guess for a broader kind of question--how does the evolution of what was being done with classical guitar music fit in with the evolution of European art music into the Romantic period generally? Was it kind of it's own animal?

HY: Well the guitar is an instrument--it was maybe not the best vehicle for the Romantic movement. It was not--compared to, say, the piano--it was not really suited to these big gestures and extremes of dynamics. The guitar favors certain keys, it has limitations in volume. But it had its own path, and it wasn't independent of all these things that were happening to music in the period. The guitar was very much a salon instrument as opposed to a piano, which was suitable for the salon and the concert hall. That's not to say that the guitar didn't have it's place in the concert hall, but it was certainly geared more towards the salon, and the repertoire reflects that.

LW: Who would you say--for those who might not be as familiar with guitar composers--who would you say Mertz might remind us of?

HY: He's often compared to Chopin, and what Chopin did for the piano, Mertz--he certainly did a lot to expand the harmonic language that was available to the guitar, and he also wrote pieces that went to remote keys that weren't that common for the guitar.

LW: So it seems he was pushing the boundaries to some degree or other.

HY: He certainly was.

LW: And then we have good old Herr Beethoven.

HY: Yes.  Ferdinando Carulli was an Italian guitarist/composer who was working in Paris as that time. An exact contemporary [of Beethoven] he's really remembered more for his method and for his pedagogical works. So a lot of guitar students go through a lot of Carulli, get tired of him, and never play him again. And that's a big mistake, because he left these great concert works. This piece that we're playing is one of those. [Ed. Note: Piano Sonata #12 in Ab Maj, Op 26.]

LW: So that's interesting. This transcription wasn't something that was done a century-and-a-half after the fact. This was Beethoven's contemporary, who wanted to play Beethoven on his [Carulli's] own instrument.

HY: Exactly. Which is a testament to Beethoven's fame during his lifetime, to how great musicians of his era recognized his genius, and how beautiful his music was. We are also doing duets by Adam Darr, who John and I--we were taken by his duets.

LW: You recorded some of these, correct?

HY: We recorded a bunch of these's a double CD. I think I gave you a copy.

LW: Yes; it's a wonderful CD. I think you gave it to my for my birthday. A great present!

HY:  Adam Darr is a complete unknown. Most guitarists wouldn't even recognize his name. He left quite a hefty amount of music, and we particularly liked his duets. So we recorded a double CD of his duets. We released it through Profil, a German label, and we're trying to revive him as a guitar composer.*

LW: Well this is interesting because people who follow MM think of early music, so this is an interesting expansion.

HY: Yes.  My excuse is that we're still doing it all on period of the instruments that John's going to play is a terz guitar. That is basically a guitar that's tuned up a minor's in G. There are a lot of duets for terz and regular guitar.  And that's not a common thing nowadays. It's an instrument that I wouldn't say died out, but you dont see it very often.  And I will be playing a ten-string guitar for this concert. It's ten single-strung strings--six strings on the fingerboard like a regular guitar, and four floating bass strings, like a theorbo.  [The concert] is all played on period instruments. And this time around--no replicas. They are all from the 19th century.

LW: So how do you go about procuring a 150 or 120 year old instrument?

HY:  I go on eBay....

LW: Which is exactly what they did in the late 19th century.

HY: (Laughing) Exactly right. But I've done this a few times. I find instruments that are totally worthless as instruments in themselves. I see a lot of guitars with a neck that came off, or they are in pieces. But if it looks promising--if the quality of the wood looks good, or I look at the marquetry work--if it looks like it's good quality, then it's probably a good instrument that got left in the attic and it fell apart.

LW: So a good candidate for restoration is what you're looking for.

HY: Right. So then I'll buy that for...a hundred bucks. And then spend 1500 bucks getting it restored. It's a gamble...but it's worked out for me. I have a couple of instruments like that and they're very fine instruments.

LW: So now...the rest of the season?

Brandon Labadie
HY: The rest of the season.  So after the guitar duet program, in April we have a French baroque program. For that we're going to have oboe, violin, harpsichord and viola da gamba. On oboe is Brandon Labadie, violin Vicky Pich, viola da gamba Max Fuller, and for harpsichord we are bringing in Jonathan Oddie from Seattle. The music is going all be from the court of Louis XIV.

LW: Ah, the Sun King. Roi du Soleil.

HY: Yes. So that's going to be a fun program.

LW: So am I correct in guessing there might be some Lully?

HY: There might be. There's definitely going to be Couperin...the music selection process just started for that one so...stay tuned. And then in May we're going to do an American baroque program.  So Brandon discovered this book of music that was left by a club that got together and played every week to entertain  themselves. [Ed. Note: A group from colonial Annapolis, MD.] Amateur musicians who wrote down the music that they played. They were amateurs, so it's of varying quality.

LW: But it's authentic! It's the garage music of the day!

HY: Right! It's just people jamming, and leaving this music, and it's just...super fascinating. Brandon is taking the helm on that one...I'm not even going to play in that program. That's his baby.  But I'm still excited for that. It should be a fun program.

LW: I remember talking with him about that last fall... he was very excited. As was I.  Looking ahead to season there anything you know so far, or any tidbits you can share?

HY: I have a few ideas that I'm throwing around in my head...laughing. We still want to do staged works...

LW: I know that's been a goal of yours for some time now.

HY: Right. And that is really contingent upon how much money we can raise. When we get into that, it starts costing real money. Aside from that, we've got a few ideas...but they're just ideas. I can't reveal them yet laughing.

LW: Not suitable for publication. Ruminations.

HY: Season Four...we're starting to get a pretty solid audience base.

LW: I've noticed that. There's been a subtle but increasing but...what do I want to say...sustaining. It's always hard for a new matter the quality, which, just listing the names of the performers you've played with this year in addition to yourself...people know that these people know their early music, and can play their early music. So it's nice to see the base growing.

HY: Yes it really is. Thanks so much!

*ED Note: CDs mentioned in this interview, as well as others and more information, can be found at