Interview with Eva Beneke by Giuseppe Chiaramonte (December 2010)

You started studying guitar and piano. You also played in a pop/jazz-band for six years. Please, tell us something about the beginning of your career. Why did you choose guitar? Why classical guitar?

 

Looking back I can say that as a child, I fell in love with choral singing and piano playing, and pursued both: singing in a very ambitious children´s choir in my hometown Berlin and getting on my parent´s nerves to buy me a piano from the age of 4 on…I eventually got a RED, tiny children’s piano which I hammered on quite a bit. No money for a real piano. Guitars, however, where flying around in all shapes at our house: several classical guitars, a mandolin, a 1960´s old hollow-body electric, even a fake lute. My dad used to collect these instrument and play them almost daily, along with harmonica playing and singing, which accompanied every festivity during my childhood. Being attracted to music in general, and particularly vocal music, I wanted to be a singer (and they had me sing at every family get-together!), but naturally, I was drawn towards the guitar, since everyone in my family seemed to play it. Classical guitar was simply what you learned when you took guitar lessons in East-Berlin. The (by the way, fantastic) musical education children received in the former GDR was focused on classical music almost explicitly.
When the wall came down I was still a kid in music school, taking lessons and getting more serious about music. The “Musikschule” in Berlin where I spent almost all my afternoons started offered popular music classes, which led to the start of a band “Colores de Mellow”. We stayed together for many years during high school. That´s when I took some jazz-lessons and played electric guitar for a while, too. We played Prince and Sade covers, and I thought it was the coolest way to hang with my friends, who all shared a deep love for music.
Going back to education in Easter Germany, I have found that all my music teachers at the time where particularly inspiring pedagogues. Namely that choir teacher I had a huge crush on as a girl…like every other girl in the choir!


Now you live in USA. Why did you move there? How important would you say that the country you live in is for a traveling guitarist?


Well, I moved to L.A. about three years ago because I got offered a scholarship for studies at the University of Southern California (USC), which turned into an Early music scholarship, and then into a teaching assistance 2 years ago… the opportunity was just too good to be turned down. I decided to stay, also because I got exposed to so many musical styles…for example, I got to play my guitar at the American Country Music Awards this year with a hugely popular American singer, Carrie Underwood! I also took up jazz and blues guitar lessons, I get to work regularly with Pepe Romero who lives in Southern California, and I studied with Scott Tennant and Bill Kanengiser from the L.A.G.Q. for a while, who both teach at USC.
I never intended to live in the States- but sometimes live plays these tricks on you…I got fortunate to teach guitar at the University level, and am still thrilled about the opportunities that come up every day.
I don´t think that classical music culture in Europe can be topped- concerts, and the general awareness of the public of what it stands for- but maybe we have too much of that in our DNA sometimes… For example, I found that composing my own pieces inspired by L.A. has been a much less “serious” act than it may have been while living in a city like Weimar that breathes classical tradition in every corner…
In L.A., I am simply a guitarist writing down my own tunes- I really like that, and I believe we shouldn´t take ourselves too seriously experimenting with mixed styles, guitars, expressions. If anything, I believe that a change of scenery is desirable at some point in an artists life- but it all comes down to what works for you.
Traveling these days is similarly easy or hard from all over the world- not a lot of fun, really. Being based in L.A. has helped with going to Mexico, where I am going again next March. I hope to get a chance to visit more of Central and South America that way, too. Maybe in 2011??

 

If you had to choose, who is your favorite composer to play?


Luckily, I don´t have to chose!! I have a lot of fun playing contemporary music, which requires a great amount of expressivity, such as Nuccio D´Angelo or Konstantin Vassiliev, or Alberto Ginastera. But I also have an ongoing desire to play Giuliani´s music, Barrios, Regondi, Legnani, de Falla, Dowland….
My teacher and great friend Thomas Müller-Pering is exemplary to his students in terms of repertoire choice and execution, he was always able to evoque interest for new compositions, styles, sources, new editions, research and study…In a way, everything written for the guitar is worth playing through and learning from it- and then I try to pick repertoire with “his eyes”, and keeping everything I learned from him in mind.
I am currently more interested playing jazz on the classical guitar, and found some great arrangements, that I include in my program- one of which by the Sicilian virtuoso, Francesco Buzzurro.
Being German, Bach´s music is of course very important to me, but it also is a daily landmark to see where my playing is at, and I enjoy listening to it as much as playing it, particularly the works I can´t play on the guitar, such as the Oratorios and Cantatas.


Which composer (or which historical movement) do you think is easiest for the non-musician listener to appreciate? Do you think they enjoy pieces that are more technically difficult or just more “flashy”?


Outside guitar music- I think vocal works, Lied, oratorio and opera have a huge advantage, they transport a story and often are more easily accessible than, let´s say a sonata with 4 movements. Instrumentalists who take the time to “dig up” the emotional content of a work and conveying the story they found to an audience, have my highest respect.
At the end of the day, people want to be entertained, engaged or touched, not bored when I go to a concert. Flashy pieces can be boring, too. I remember working on the Ginastera-Sonata, and playing it for my friend, the Russian flute virtuoso Elizaveta Birjukova, who had me exaggerate everything to a point where it felt really silly, and only then she said: “now I know what you´re trying to say”! That really opened my eyes to the concept that everything will be convincing if it is executed with meaning and purpose.


Your debut cd “Coming Home” was released in June 2010. It includes also three pieces composed by you. Please, tell us something about your compositions. Who inspired your works? How often do you play your own pieces in public recitals?


“Coming Home” is the title of a piece I wrote for my dad, who inspired me to pick up the guitar at an early age. It really also expresses the feelings of homesickness and feeling a little lost in the first year I lived in L.A., and maybe my wish to feel at home everywhere…sounds a bit strange, I know, but I really am a child of the globalization. I had to go away very far, to find out that my roots in Germany are strong: culturally and emotionally. I think all my compositions are inspired by events and people I meet on the way, that meant a lot to me. Some of them are teachers, like Brian Head at USC, who encouraged me to work on my pieces without guiding too much- he has helped me a lot with “Say it again” (available through Clearnote Publications or www.evabeneke.com)
Others, who inspired and opened up new ways of thinking, outside the classical/non-classical way of thinking. And, quite a bit of heart-ache and homesickness, too… 😉
I try to play my pieces whenever I can, just because I think they represent my guitar-playing better than any Giuliani or Bach ever could!

 

Could you say something about your next projects? Where are you going to play next?


Right now, I am thrilled to do a cross-over project with a German Jazz-Singer, Meike Schmitz, who has recently won a couple of really important chanson-prizes, and who I met while studying with Thomas Müller-Pering at the “Franz-Liszt Hochschule”, Weimar. She and I came up with a program of christmas tunes, some from Eastern Germany, others from the West, some really old, traditional melodies- which I loved since I was a child. I will arrange and re-harmonize them, but still be playing classical guitar. Our first “jazzy” christmas-tune is about to come out this season, and will be followed by a whole record in 2011.
A little secret…an animated Youtube-video to go with that song is being worked on right now! So check into youtube and itunes and search for me in December!
I am also preparing for a solo-tour in Germany (Remagen/Bonn, Berlin, Waldorf) this December and January, where I will be presenting music from my new CD, and a few Albeniz-pieces, along with the Beatles arrangements by Toru Takemitsu – I just LOVE these!


You performed several times in Italy. Where did you exactly play? When?


Yes, I did, and it was such a pleasure playing there! My first trip to Italy was quite an adventure: When I was 18, I went to Piemonte to compete in a guitar festival, called “Chitarrissima” with a friend. We took the train, and found ourselves at Milano Centrale, at 4 o´clock in the morning, two girls with guitars and backpacks waiting for a connecting train…so crazy, when I think about it now.
During the competition, Carlo Marchione, who had invited me go there, gave me a pair of socks he used to mute his strings while warm up…a clean pair, of course! I felt like I was touching some holy item: Carlo was, and still is one of my personal musical heroes, and I always admired his musical genius! Well, the socks must have done the trick: the festival in Saluzzo was a great experience, and the next year I came back, very grateful, to play a prize-winner´s concert.
8. Who is the guitar maker of your instrument?
I am playing a double-top guitar by the Californian luthier Kenny Hill. I chose it, because my friend and teacher Scott Tennant owns one, which I found extremely easy to play- a fantastic choice for me, really. Before that, I was lucky to play a cedar double-top by Per Hallgren of Sweden- one of the most beautiful sounding instruments I ever got my hands on.


Are you used to play also early instruments in your concerts?


I also play a romantic guitar from ca. 1830 (original), which we don´t know the maker of, but it is most likely a french instrument. I found it in an antique music store in Amsterdam, and had it restored to playability, and I hope to play it more in concerts, soon. I have played baroque guitar for two years with the Thornton Baroque Sinfonia in Los Angeles and I own a blue Fender stratocaster which I am currently only playing in my living room, but you never know…

Other than the guitar, what are your other interests? How do you like to spend your free time?


I love dancing tango argentino, but unfortunately don´t have a lot of time for that these days. I am working on a doctorate, teaching and performing…so- right now, my answer would have to be: reading, sleeping and eating! The latter can take up a LOT of time, best spent in enjoyable company. But who am I telling that to- this is an Italian blog, right???


Thank you so much, I wish you the best for your career.


Giuseppe, thank you for providing your readers with insight on classical guitar! Hope to see you soon in Italy- keep up your passion for music!


Sure! Hope to see you soon too!


Giuseppe Chiaramonte

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