Jason Vieaux is only 34, but he's been at the top of the classical guitar world for nearly half his life. Back in 1992, he became the youngest winner ever of the prestigious Guitar Foundation of American International Competition.
Now director of the Cleveland Institute of Music's guitar program, Vieaux travels the world, playing more than 60 concerts a year.
He comes to the Tampa Bay area this weekend to perform the Villa-Lobos Guitar Concerto with the Florida Orchestra. Recently, Vieaux spoke with the Times over the phone about his long love for the concerto and whether having a guitar piece on the program might lure younger listeners to the orchestra. As he drove a snowy Pennsylvania road after a concert, Vieaux also talked about his latest solo CD, Images of Metheny, and how the lessons of jazz inform his own playing and teaching.
Does having a guitarist as the featured soloist attract some people who typically wouldn't attend an orchestral performance?
I think it has the potential to. I hope I can find a way to bring people into the symphony hall so that people, and younger people as well, can be exposed to not just the guitar concertos I'm playing but also the other stuff on the program.
What excites you about the Villa-Lobos concerto?
He was the most prolific composer of the 20th century, with over 2,000 pieces. There's a wonderful mix of his French classical music impressionism, but also combining that very skillfully and naturally with the music of Brazil. He wanted to really glorify the music of his people so he wrote a lot of choros, like the street music of Brazil. All of his music has this inflection, from the music of the aboriginal tribes of the region, with lots of evocations of wooden flutes and drums/percussion.
When did you first encounter the concerto?
I had the Julian Bream recording when I was in high school and probably listened to it every day for a year. It was my favorite piece of music when I was 15. I heard it with Julian Bream's ears. Now, upon studying the piece, I hear it differently. The second movement is gorgeous, and it has one of the most powerful solo cadenzas of any guitar concerto.
What attracted you to classical guitar?
My mother, picking up on the keen interest I had in music, bought me a guitar when I was 5. It just so happened that this guitar had nylon strings — a child-size classical guitar. We didn't know there was such a thing as classical guitar, but my mother had an awareness of Spanish guitar. When the Buffalo Guitar Quartet came to my school when I was 7 and did a lunchtime recital, my mother was working there as a secretary for the librarian. She walked up to them after the show and asked if anyone would come to the house and give private lessons. Jeremy Sparks took an interest and over the summer I turned 8 I began studying with him and continued for seven or eight years.
How much did you practice?
I didn't really mind practicing. I wanted to be good, much like an athlete that is very disciplined. You can't have a better job than this. I can't imagine anything being cooler than traveling around the world and playing music.
Since Andres Segovia broadened the audience for solo classical guitar, its popularity has boomed. As a young performer, was the competition intimidating?
I think I was a little naive in my thinking, because I didn't really know what was out there. It was pretty much self-driven. Around my later teen years I did wonder from time to time how the hell I was going to get from point A to point B. I had a lot of success in regional and national music competitions. I was 19 when I won the GFA (the Guitar Foundation of America international competition). That was another sign that maybe I had a shot at doing this for a living. That really is the biggest competition in the Western Hemisphere for classical guitar.
How did you become interested in Pat Metheny's music?
Pat Metheny was introduced to me by a composer friend who I was rooming with in my junior year. He and my other roommate introduced me to two records by Pat Metheny: First Circle and Offramp. I was just bowled over. I don't think they left my CD player for the next six months. . . . The tunes are so beautiful, and they have such wonderful melodies. I eventually got over 20 of these tunes where I had these little impromptu solo arrangements. I took 13 of his songs and basically just fleshed them out with a bit more detail and more structure.
Classical guitar has been perceived by other classical musicians as a lesser form. Is that idea waning?
The actual musicianship we display on our instrument is at an all-time high. I think we're in actually something of the beginning of a golden age, with just so many fantastic players. I hope that can improve the reputation of the guitar and its players.
What do you emphasize with your students?
I stress the importance of really being able to improvise if they can . . . so that they're not merely moving their fingers around. (I want them to) have a closer relationship with the music in the moment, and really hear what they're doing. It's what jazz musicians just do as part of their training.
Philip Booth is a jazz bassist who writes on arts and entertainment for the Times and other publications.