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The Montes-Kircher Duo:

Ten years on


By Colin Cooper

Classical Guitar August 1995


After a fruitful spell in London as the cultural attaché at the Venezuelan Embassy, Alfonso Montes has gone to Bonn, in Germany, where he will perform similar duties at the Embassy there. In London he organized guitar recitals at the Embassy’s Bolivar Hall, a rewarding series mounted in conjunction with Classical Guitar Magazine. Anyone who has been to one will know how ideally suited in many ways this 250-seater hall is to the presentation of such events. Is Bonn, the birthplace of Giuliani’s friend Beethoven, about to experience a potent injection of guitar music? They are going to enjoy it, that’s for sure.

Alfonso is better known to CG readers as the guitarist and composer who is one of the half of the highly accomplished Montes-Kircher Duo, which is one of the husband –and –wife partnership that bear fruit in many more ways than one. As a soloist, the young Irina Kircher has enormous potential: another Ida Presti, it was said. But Ida Presti settled for motherhood and duets, too, and in a world rather overstocked with good soloists it would appear to be as satisfactory a way of fulfillment as any other. Artists are not slaves, and anyone who feels inclined to regret the loss to the world of a brilliant soloist should try to look at things from the point of view of the individuals concerned. Audiences are not the only people who want satisfaction.

The Duo has been in existence for ten years, and that served as an excuse for this interview- not that any excuse was needed, for Alfonso Montes is invariably deeply involved in one guitar project or another, whether it’s a concert (his own or another’s) or a commission for a new composition. A union of two international soloists, the Montes-Kircher Duo has now successfully established itself and work is most continuous- or would be if they accepted every engagement that is offered. They have made 800 appearances in 35 countries, and have issued nine commercial recordings. Since 1989 they have published their own Montes-Kircher edition for the Düsseldorf-based Verlag Hubertus Nogatz. “Most important, what we said we were going to do, ten years ago, at the beginning, is a reality.” Said Alfonso. “We wanted to build a repertoire. We don’t want to judge whether it is good or bad, but we want to say that it is new.

Their last-but-one CD was completely devoted to Alfonso’s own music for two guitars. The last CD contains Alfonso’s music too, as well as music by Wedlich, Rago, Peter Stewart, Eduardo Marturet and Steve Marsh, who is perhaps better known to CG readers as a reviewer. Alfonso pays tribute to the help they received from recording engineer John Taylor: “We make a trio. We are not a duo any more. He is a man who really gets the thing going. John gives us musical ideas. He is a man of very sound ideas in music. A musician.”

All the pieces on the new CD were written for the Montes-Kircher Duo. “When I say new, it is not necessarily new in musical idiom- although it is new, I think. Ulrich Wedlich has come out with a fantastic piece of music: 20-odd minutes, a collage of pop, flamenco- all those elements are there. Not readily recognizable; you think there are bits of Paco de Luvia, but the’re not. It’s what I think a good composer should do. You don’t become too obvious. There is also a jazzy piece by Peter Stewart.

There is, of course more to music making than ten years of playing. “ Personal relationships, things like marriage, the hard reality of music making- all those things can give elements to a good piece of work.”

Plus the fact that both partners were searching for the same thing in their music making, though using different methods. When asked what they admire in each other’s playing, Irina says it is Alfonso’s amazing awareness of what is going on in the music, his feeling for sound. Alfonso will reply that it is Irina’s control over phrasing- for her a very natural thing that has a lot to do with the fact that she is a good singer- ‘a wonderful singer’, said Alfonso. ‘Sometimes, when we are practicing a piece and Irina asks to stop and then suggests a particular phrasing by singing the particular segment, I find myself being moved by the powerful emotional charge she can project. It is very inspiring.’

There was an occasion when, during a rehearsal of his Fantasia for two guitars and orchestra, the clarinetist had not turned up. Irina sang the prominent clarinet solo in the first movement, and the whole orchestra applauded.

Prominent in Alfonso’s ambition is, or was, bearing in mind the Bonn posting, the wish to relaunch the the series at the Bolivar Hall. The first one was successful, even if not quite the sucesss that was hoped for. The reasons are not easy to find. Possibly the Bolivar Hall was not well enough known- but, as Alfonso said, ‘The Wigmore Hall is not well known either, because not so many go to it as go to the Festival Hall! Too exspensive, maybe? ‘The cheapest offer on the market,’ said Alfonso proudly. Not enough promotion? The series was very widely promoted.

‘I think it is a question of time. By now, London is beginning to miss what it used to have in the late 70s and early 80s. You remember this tradition: every Friday there was a guitar recital at the Wigmore Hall. Lots of guitarists were playing there- and they weren’t playing to full houses. One famous Venezuelan guitarist played to 26 people. A Spanish guitarist drew 18. I think we are now getting into a position where it is financially possible.’

Alfonso mentioned some of the excellent concerts at the Bolivar Hall. Davis Starobin, for one, was outstanding. Vladimir Mikulks played perhaps the best concert Alfonso has heard him play.’ And one of the elements that really helps that happening is the fact that the acoustic is so good. So warm and so easy to play there. It gives the ideal situation for a good artist to create the range that’s needed- atmospheric, expressive, aggressive, sorrowful- because you can fill that hall with sound, even with a guitar.’

At 40, Alfonso leads a very full life. He has been married for ten years- as long as the Duo has been in existence- and is a father. As well as being a professional performer and a professional diplomat, he is also a composer, and had just completed the music for a play being performed in Caracas to commemorate the 20th anniversary of an important theatre company there. Most of the Duo’s performances take place within the framework of a music festival.

‘I think that that is what will project the guitar more and put pressure on the people who are participating. There is more money there, and there is a bigger circuit. If you manage to get into it, people will invite you to other festivals. In the end, the isolation of the guitar is not a good thing. But it’s very difficult to integrate it. The quota in these music festivals for guitar is very small. Although a guitar recital is comparatively cheap to produce, it brings in very few people in comparison with an orchestral concert. The record industry is behind the orchestra rather than behind the guitar. Sony international is far more concerned with a new version of Beethoven’s nine symphonies than the reissue of Presti and Lagoya’s recordings.’

Medici are producing Alfonso’s own concerto along with the Aranjuez in a new CD. ‘ Then thousand records for the whole of the Asian market,’ said Alfonso. ‘They have done the Aranjuez, my concerto for two guitars and some duos with Irina and I play. Irina plays the Aranjuez, with the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra.’ It represents an important breakthrough for the Duo, and for Alfonso personally as a composer. He calls the concerto ‘Our little war-horse’, because they play it again and again. He now has a commission to write a solo guitar concerto, from Editions Nogatz in Düsseldorf. This is a medium-sized publishing house, run by a guitarist. Alfonso has also commissioned a guitar concerto from Ernesto Cordero, and as well works with a lot of German composers, such as Christopher Baum.

Alfonso and Irina have two children, Igor and Isabella. Igor already plays the guitar, Isabella as yet is too young. They play musical games with their parents, who have made sure that stimulation came early. ‘ In the end, what is music for? It’s a motivation of our senses. And sense will include intellect. But obviously, at that early time in life, emotions they do know. And feelings. Fear, joy, sadness, happiness. Every day they work a little, they play a little and they rest a little. Good guiding principles’, says Alfonso. ‘ That’s my day too. Why not? There must be contrast. And there must be compensation in one’s living process. Food is a thing to enjoy. Eating , especially between friends, is a sacred ritual. Since man has existed as a civilized being, this is a ritual that fills out friendship, big occasions, birth, death- you name it.’

Alfonso Montes sees a lack of proportion between what he calls ‘fancy publicity’ and the realities of most concert careers. He sees no point in devoting one’s whole life to concert performance-‘there is a life to live, and living means that we have families, we want to spend time with the children. I still remember going to a famous festival in Poland in1991, and our daughter Isabella had just been born in February, and the Festival was at the end of March. When she was barely a month old. And there we were in this plane going from Warsaw to one of these places. And this plane had no heating. You can imagine in March- which is still Siberian winter as far as I am concerned. We remember, with a lot of pain still, that little daughter went absolutely blue. When we came down, I wanted to leave that place at once. I never wanted to be there again. Nothing personal- but you cannot live like that.

‘When you think about those things, you think, well, OK, music is beautiful and we have done lots of music and we will still do lots of music. But life has different dimensions, another dimension from living egocentrically for the sake of ‘I am a great musician’, so that everything has to turn around me, the children keeping quiet while I practice the guitar- That’s ridiculous! It is not a complete picture of a human being. There is a reality to being a classical guitarist, and I think that being aware of that reality won’t spoil your music making. And in the end that’s what is important. Rather than cult personalities.

‘What is important is that we keep on enjoying good music. That is the bottom line. We enjoy it, we consider it precious, and we have to share our information.’

What about this problem of dwindling audiences? Was there anything that guitarists could do about the current decline that was affecting all branches of music? How can we all make people understand that in going to a concert they are getting something they can’t get at home, something that is valuable? Is there something we can sell them?

‘Do they want to be sold it?’ queried Alfonso. ‘I’m sure they do, but it’s a question of do they realize they want it? By nature the guitar has this pena (sorrowful) flavour. It’s reality will always be in the smallish concert halls, intimate halls. Intimacy is an important element in the guitar. I don’t think we can do without it. You get players now who can project the sound a very long way, they can fill big halls with the sound. But you see also players who are trying to fill that space, and they’re hammering the strings. And then it’s horrible, because they’re taking away every little idiosyncrasy of the guitar. We shall always be able to achieve with the guitar a wide range of emotions, but it has to start from nil, absolutely nil! That automatically brings us to these proportions, theses dimensions we are talking about. If you start from absolute silence, there is a limit at the top where you can go without destroying the sound, where you can go without the instrument becoming unnatural. Somewhere there are the right dimensions.’

Alfonso has been participating in a very interesting project. The new Lauro Hall in Ciudad Bolivar. ‘I had a big say in what dimensions it should have. It is to be devoted mainly to chamber music. Obviously , in honoring Lauro it must be devoted largely to the guitar. I said that 250 people and extremely good acoustics are what should be aimed for. You have to relate it also to the society you live in. In a place like London, surely the Purcell Room is not big enough for a big guitarist. For a Bream or a Williams , the Wigmore Hall would be just about the right dimensions: they would always fill it up. But in a little village in the south of Venezuela , 250 people would be an immense audience. Especially on a regular basis.

‘ The guitar has to be able to fill the room with sound. The room is an integral part of the sound. And this is something that no listener to a CD will ever hear, however good the recording and fantastic the speakers. You are participating in an event that is unique, and that will at that particular moment in time establish a communication, or whatever you want to call it, which is there and then, and never again. This is perhaps what people don’t understand they are missing.’

Alfonso Montes has a theory that the reason why both Julian Bream and John Williams are somewhere near their best at the ripe old ages of 62 and 54 respectively is because they no longer have to prove anything. A particular recital by Bream some years ago stands out in his memory. The Chaconne began well, then became a less-than- happy experience for player and audience. And then, says Alfonso, something happened. He can’t explain it, but the atmosphere suddenly became electric. ‘If you try to measure physically why the guitar can sound like that, the colour, the emotion that went into the sound, it can’t be done. There is no way to measure it. That was coming from somewhere ‘out there’- and this man was the medium. Obviously it happened because of the human element. If the people had not been there, he couldn’t have played like that.

It would be wonderful if more of that kind of playing could be brought to the Bolivar Hall in the future. It is too good a hall not to be used for guitar recitals, for which it is so well suited. Watch, as they say, this space.


Discography

Duo Antonio Lauro Banco Industrial (Venezuela 1984)

Duo Antonio Lauro plays music from Vest-Norge Plattels Kap (Norway 1985)

Norway and Venezuela

Duo Montes- Kircher plays music from Vest-Norge Plattels Kap (Norway 1987)

Spain and Latin America

Dialogo Ziefle und Künstler (Germany 1988)

Staccato 1 Audio Magazine (Germany1989)

Staccato 2 Audio Magazine (Germany 1990)

Fantasia Mavesa C.A.(Venezuela 1991)

Duo Montes-Kircher plays Montes KMK (England 1992)

El cielo que esta KMK (England 1994)


Publications

Guitar solo by Alfonso Montes

Tiento , Cancion y Danza Chris Kilvington’s choice (Ricordi)

Suite Latinando Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

Suite Caribe Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

Cuatro cantos simples Cambridge music works

Concierto Venezolano Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)


Two guitars by Alfonso Montes

Coroto y Milonga Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

Cancion und Bossa Nova Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

Suite Melancolica Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

Suite Lugares Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

Fantasia Venezolana Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

For two guitars and orchestra

Cantollano (from Eduardo Marturet) Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

Son y Bambuco Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

Composed by Irina und Alfonso


Guitar Ensemble by Alfonso Montes

Tepuyes Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

El Morichal Edition Montes-Kircher (Verlag Nogatz)

Samba festival Edition (Corda Music)