By Jenny Neyman
Valerie Hartzell’s performance Friday in Soldotna isn’t just a classical guitar concert, it’s revolution, part of her continued crusade to achieve equality within the classical music world.
“We are in our Renaissance right now as far as timeline. I think for classical guitar, this is it, this is our rebirth on our instruments,” Hartzell said.
In the early 19th century, guitar enjoyed popularity in classical music, but by the end of that century the instrument was no longer being featured in big venues and large concerts, with musicians and composers preferring small salon venues instead.
“Because it’s an intimate instrument and so, in a way, I understand, but in another way it really hurt us because we are way behind the piano and violin and cello as a solo instrument. I think that really knocked us back a century,” Hartzell said.
Then came virtuoso Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia in the late 19th and early 20th century, known as the father of modern classical guitar. He helped return classical guitar to concert halls, calling for a focus on bigger instruments with better acoustics that are better suited to large venues. He began the trend of setting guitar back on par with other classical instruments, encouraging growth in musicians, compositions, audiences and respect.
The irony today, of course, is that guitar is ubiquitous in popular music. Few are the music fans that can’t strum out some pop-tune chords or at least indulge in moments of air guitar. Much lesser known is the classical repertoire and the image of guitar as part of a string ensemble or full orchestra.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you play guitar? Do you sing, too?’” Hartzell said. “The fastest response I give is, ‘No, I play things like Bach and composers contemporary to Mozart and Beethoven,’ and, of course, lots of 20th century composers that are good, and 21st century composers who are alive and going. And they’re like, ‘Oh. Really?’ ‘Yeah, classical guitar has a long history.’
“No Indigo Girls, sorry,” she said. “And the funny part is on my program I have a piece by a composer John Anthony Lennon, and everybody gets kind of confused. ‘Is it the same guy?’ I want to say, ‘No, it ain’t the Beatles.’”
Not that Hartzell had a clue about any of this history when she started playing, at the ripe old age of toddler. Her mother was a classical guitarist, and Hartzell was fascinated by the instrument from a young age, studying it throughout childhood spent in the Northeast, France and Texas.
“I think you’re kind of oblivious when you’re little because you’re in your own little world. And I was surrounded by classical guitar my whole life,” she said.
It was in middle school, when she started entering competitions, that she noticed the gulf between guitar and mainstream classical music. For one thing, she couldn’t even find classical guitar competitions and was always lumped into competitions with other string instruments.
“Most of these judges didn’t know anything about classic guitar so they were like, ‘Well, how do I judge you?’ It was really demoralizing for me. It was just kind of depressing because you would go into competitions and play a big concerto and they’d go, ‘Yeeeah… ,’ and then you’d never make it to the semis or finals,” she said.
She won one competition and it happened to be with a judge who was familiar with classical guitar.
“You should have seen the look on the faces of the other parents and kids. Somebody even said, ‘A classical guitarist won?’ I heard somebody say that and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, we have a long way to go in the classical guitar world to be accepted,’” she said.
Add to that the rarity of being a woman classical guitarist. At the Peabody Conservatory, where she got her bachelor’s degree in 1997, she was one of about five female classical guitarists out of 50. She continued to be a minority even among the minority of classical guitarists as she got her graduate degree at Radford University and embarked on her worldwide performance career, including the release of a well-regarded CD, “Ex Tenebris … Lux,” in 2011.
She’s out to change all that. One of her endeavors in Houston, where Hartzell and her husband lived before their couple-year stint in Anchorage, which ended last year (they now live in England), was forming the all-women classical guitar trio Presti, named in honor of celebrated child-prodigy French classical guitarist Ida Presti.
The trio wears ball gowns on the cover of their CD and in concerts, not because their music sounds feminine — an audience member with their eyes closed wouldn’t be able to guess the performers’ gender — but to make the visual statement that classical guitar is for women as much as men.
“We decided, the trios and quartets, it’s guys, guys, guys, guys, guys. They don’t even have a female in their quartet. It’s got a long way to go still,” Hartzell said.
She’s also adamant, and optimistic, about advancing guitar in the classical musical world. While in Houston she created the Classical Minds Guitar Institute and Competition as part of the Texas Music Festival.
“Because sometimes you’re not trumpeted in your own town, and I thought it was really important to support the local scene in Houston,” she said.
She’s also a private instructor of all ages and loves to work with schools and cheerlead burgeoning university classical guitar programs. While on the central peninsula, she’ll visit an elementary and two high schools, as well as doing her public concert Friday night.
“They of course know about electric guitar and rock ‘n’ roll. You’ve got to wonder if they’ve even seen classical guitar before, so I know I’m bringing something new and I know that if I can at least get maybe one or two interested — maybe not in just classical guitar but in classical music — maybe that opens the door to some opportunities for these kids,” she said.
The classical guitar Renaissance may have started with Segovia, but Hartzell believes it will take off with youth.
“I think really your best bet for classical guitarist is being seen in these middle schools and high schools, because they’re the ones who really need to start playing. You’re at a disadvantage in learning just in college. It’s much better if you can start younger,” she said.
Exposing classical guitar to kids not only helps recruit new musicians, but new audiences.
“If it’s in the schools the parents are going to see it, they’re going to be exposed to it,” she said.
In that vein, Hartzell is quite impressed with the classical guitar program at the University of Anchorage. There isn’t even one in Houston, a city of 5 million, compared to Anchorage’s 400,000 population, she said.
“I think Alaska will start seeing more classical guitar because of that program,” she said.
But at the same time as being impressed, she’s not terribly surprised, having experienced Alaskans’ appreciation for music firsthand.
“One of the things that really inspired me about Alaska is people really like going to concerts. I mean, they really dig it,” she said.
In Houston she’d send email after email, go on radio shows and otherwise try to promote concerts.
“It was like pulling teeth, and sometimes we’d have like 20 people show up. It was like fighting to get people in the seats,” she said.
Here, an organizer for a concert she did in Anchorage last year sent one email and tickets sold out overnight.
“And there was a blizzard the next day and they all showed up,” she said. “Valdez, I played there and there was a monsoon. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, great, we drove seven hours out here and no one’s going to show up,’ and the entire town came. It was jam-packed. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? If it rained in Houston no one would come.’ I just love the enthusiasm, and people really want to go, and they’re really excited. They don’t care if it rains, they don’t care if it snows.”
For her concert Friday night, Hartzell is planning a diverse repertoire.
“They’re going to hear music from all ages, from Bach to John Anthony Lennon — poor guy, what a name — and everything in between,” she said. “I have a lot of countries covered in my program, and it goes from the Baroque period with Bach all the way to modern. The most eclectic piece I have is the John Anthony Lennon. There’s a lot of fun in it but there’s some pretty weird, sci-fi-y moments in this piece. But that’s as weird as it gets, everything else is very accessible to the audience. I think they’ll be able to tap their feet and dance a little bit in their seats, but at the same time have some reflective, meditative moments on some of these pieces, too.”
In those moments, audience members can perhaps meditate on the resurgence of classical guitar.
“I think this past 30 years has been our rebirth, and I think in about 50 years it will be equal — violin, cello and classical guitar,” she said.
Hartzell will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna, presented by the Performing Arts Society. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students, available at Northcountry Fair and River City Books in Soldotna, Already Read Books and Country Liquor in Kenai, and at the door.