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Searching in the guitar for all the colors of the orchestra

Eliot Fisk (pictured) will be joined by Zaira Meneses and Oscar Ghiglia at the Boston GuitarFest. Eliot Fisk (pictured) will be joined by Zaira Meneses and Oscar Ghiglia at the Boston GuitarFest. (New England Conservatory)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / June 10, 2011

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The Boston-based musician Eliot Fisk has built a prominent career “swimming upstream’’ as a classical guitar soloist. He spoke with the Globe in advance of this year’s Boston GuitarFest (June 15-19), which he founded six years ago.

Q. What should we know about this year’s GuitarFest?

A. The theme is “Bell’ Italia,’’ and the main guest is a former teacher of all the performers — Oscar Ghiglia, who has been a wonderful guru and mentor to generations of guitarists, including myself. We’ll have four days of master classes and performances. It’s an exhilarating thing that always charges all of us up.

Q. What was the original vision for the festival, your reason for founding it?

A. The aim was definitely not to do just one more guitar festival. I wanted to do something artistically in the realm of a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art’’). I’ve always been most excited about music when I’ve been part of a bigger community. . . . I’m interested in it as a galvanizing, humanizing force in society, bringing people together. And in our own little way, that’s the bigger picture of what we’re doing at the festival.

The aim is, first and foremost, aesthetic and artistic excellence, but it’s also a chance for my students to learn on-the-job entrepreneurial skills. Each year I pick a theme and we try to involve many Boston institutions. This year New England Conservatory and Northeastern University are involved [among others].

Q. How do you view the modern plight of the classical guitar more generally?

A. For me the plight of the classical guitar is the opportunity of the classical guitar. The guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. People are not intimidated by it. It has a friendly persona. It’s one of the oldest instruments. We have this heritage from the time of the Renaissance. We also have a wild folk part of our heritage, and these streams grew up simultaneously. In my day, when I was in school, the string players were groomed for orchestral jobs or to be a soloist. But now no one has a job! I think that many classical guitar players have been used to being entrepreneurial all their lives, so they are now better poised than many musicians to take on the challenges of art music in the 21st century.

Q. Growing up in Pennsylvania, what was your own route to classical guitar?

A. My parents were Quakers, and I was raised in the Philadelphia area. We had Roger Scott, the principal double bass player of the Philadelphia Orchestra, in our Meeting. He said, “If Eliot is going to study guitar, he should study classical guitar.’’ But there was almost nobody to study with. For only two years of my life, I had good weekly lessons from an amateur at a guitar store on Saturdays. He was so tough on me that in order to prove him wrong, I started to practice. There was no support really from anywhere, but I was bitten by the bug, and I had this sound in my ear that I wanted to create.

Q. You eventually studied with the legendary guitarist Andrés Segovia. Do you think contemporary players have had a difficult time escaping his shadow?

A. I think he’s still a great model — his repertoire spanned five centuries. He played the old stuff, the Renaissance music, and played wonderfully musical Bach. He also got an unbelievable amount of stuff written by very good composers, and he performed it with tremendous devotion and tremendous artistry. Segovia had the courage to take unamplified classical guitar into halls that seated 2,500 people — that was so gutsy, and his charisma was so fantastic that people listened to him.

Q. I’m sure you meet people all the time, even classical music fans, who have had almost no contact with classical guitar performance. How do you introduce them to what you do?

A. Segovia had a beautiful way of putting it. He said the guitar is like an orchestra seen through the wrong end of the telescope — a miniature orchestra, with all the colors possible. He also said that, of all God’s creatures, two have assumed all sizes and shapes to accompany man: the dog and the guitar. I’m actually trying to break out of mini-orchestra metaphor — I want to be an orchestra! I think what’s amazing is the variety of expression in the repertoire, from the very accessible end to far-out modern stuff.

One of the interesting things about art is that it should be in some way experimental, and if we’re under this impression that everything has to be a masterpiece always, then maybe we’re not taking enough risks. We try at these festivals to have a tremendous variety so everyone can both feel comfortable and also be exhilarated by some new experiences that they haven’t had before.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Festival schedule at bostonguitarfest.org.

BOSTON GUITARFEST Runs June 15-19, with concerts at Northeastern’s Fenway Center. 617-373-4700, bostonguitarfest.org